Reasons to Be Optimistic About the Future of the Environment (Part 1)

Securing natural capital and expanding equity to rescale civilization, Nature. / Paul R. Ehrlich, Peter M. Kareiva & Gretchen C. Daily

“It’s easy to be cynical or pessimistic” about the the state of the global environment, said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian, at the opening of the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. “We’re not blind to the realities, but if organizations and individuals work together, obstacles can be overcome.” Over three days, an audience of 1,400 heard one inspiring environmental success story after another. While no one forgot that climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation have created a global environmental emergency, there was a concerted effort to change the narrative — from one of relentless anger and despair to one of progress and a cautious optimism about the future. The goal was to highlight was is working today and figure out the ways to replicate and scale up successes.

Highlighted are a few of the success stories heard at the summit:

China Is Valuing Its Ecosystem Services: Gretchen Daly, professor of environmental science at Stanford University and founder of the Natural Capital Project, said more cities and countries are starting to put financial value on the many ecosystem services nature provides. Some success stories: New York realized that investing in the ecological functions of the watershed surrounding New York City was cheaper than building a massive filtration plant. Costa Rica has initiated a payment system for conserving nature.

And China has undertaken a massive planning effort to identify and value its critical ecological assets in an effort to become the “ecological civilization of the 21st century.” Some 4,000 officials in 31 provinces have been trained with Daly’s InVest software, which has helped Chinese policymakers identify “priority zones for carbon absorption, biodiversity, flood control, sandstorm control, and water purification.” Today, some 200 million Chinese are now getting paid to restore natural capital. Hainan has become the first “eco-province.” Daly said some 50 countries and cities are using the Natural Capital Project’s ecosystem service management system.

Truly inspiring, but it only happened after “China kissed disaster,” getting close to total environmental collapse. And China has decades of work ahead before its environment can be deemed healthy. Let’s hope the rest of the planet doesn’t have to get to the brink of catastrophe before it values increasingly-scarce resources.

In the U.S, Renewable Energy Is Where the Growth Is: In the U.S., all new power generation last year was renewable. Wind and solar power are the now the cheapest energy options, even when you remove the government subsidies. “This has been a huge change in the past decade,” said David Crane, Pegasus Capital Advisers. The model of financing solar panels in the U.S., which basically involving leasing someone’s roof space in return for giving them a discount on their home energy bills, made the solar revolution possible. That model has mobilized $1 trillion in capital and generated 250,000 megawatts of energy, explained Jigar Shah, with Generate Capital and SunEdison.

Renewable energy is no longer just a favorite cause of green Democrats either. Dale Ross, the mayor of deep-red Georgetown, Texas, a growing city of about 50,000, explained how he made a long-term agreement with wind and solar companies to power his city’s growth. Ross believes the U.S. will have 80 percent of its energy generated by wind and solar by 2025 if states are allowed to sell more power across borders. But Crane was less optimistic, pointing out that only 1.5 million homes now have solar panels, whereas there should be 50-55 million homes. “The power industry is a monopoly fighting rooftop solar. People need to stand up and pressure companies and regulators.”

On the positive side: GM, a fairly traditional company, just announced it will be 100 percent powered by renewable energy by 2040. And Walmart aims for 50 percent renewable energy sources by 2025. Architect William McDonough believes these companies will help “wage peace through commerce.” The leaders of the firms decided to “do the right thing and set positive goals.” These goals would have seemed impossible a decade ago.

Food Waste Is Now on Our Radar: There is a growing momentum across the developed world to end the egregious waste from the industrial agriculture and food retail industries. Food production is by far the biggest environmental impact humans have on the Earth, with agriculture covering a third of the surface. With the global population expected to hit 9-10 billion by 2050, many argue that food production will need to increase 50-70 percent. But Tristram Stuart, founder of Feedback and Toast Ale, argues that we actually already grow enough food to feed 12 billion people. Food overproduction is really the issue. As a result, we are creating not only huge amounts of waste but also producing obese populations. Globally, some one-third of food is wasted. In the U.S. and Europe, people are eating 1.5 to 2 times what they need.

Stuart said there are positive trends though, because “governments are starting to act and create measurable change.” In the UK, food waste has been reduced 27 percent since 2007. Taking on some of the “blatantly stupid waste of resources” perpetuated through the supply chains of supermarkets, his organization has used campaigns to show how waste can be reduced. For example, he convinced some UK supermarket chains to stop selling cut green beans, imported from Kenya, in favor of full beans that will not only stay fresh longer but reduce the amount of bean wasted in the process. His other company, Toast Ale, uses left-over ends of bread to craft beer. “You can get wasted on waste.”

Communities Are Organizing to Save Coastal Ecosystems: Ayana Johnson, founder of Ocean Collectiv, said there is now a greater understanding of coastal ecosystems and how they sequester far more carbon than terrestrial forests. As such, more coastal communities are making it much harder for corporations to privatize or over-develop coasts. There is a new awareness of the importance of preserving and restoring mangroves, even though some efforts to actually restore mangroves have not succeeded. Furthermore, “oyster restoration is gaining steam,” as communities realize they play an important role in buffering wave forces and filtering water.

In the Caribbean, where Johnson focuses her coastal community development work, there is a growing awareness that conserving ocean resources is a “social justice issue.” When marine reserves are established, “fish populations bounce back.” On the negative side, only 2-3 percent of the ocean is now protected, and scientists think it needs to be around 30 percent.

Not to sugarcoat: the future challenges facing our coastal communities are daunting. With warming waters, many fisheries are expected to migrate towards the poles, threatening millions of livelihoods. It’s not clear what shifting fisheries mean for the “half of the world who depend on seafood for their protein.”

Cities Are Rebuilding Connections to Nature: The old model in which cities were totally cut off from their waterfronts — either by highways or industrial facilities — seems to be ending in the developed world at least. Damon Rich, head of Hector Urban Design, walked us through one prime example of how communities are reconnecting to their waterfront in Newark, New Jersey, which transformed some of the edges of the Passaic River from “toxic nastiness” into the site of the 20-acre, $35 million Newark Riverfront Park that uses a “symbolic system” of bright orange to “reflect this is an anti-racist space.” To accomplish something like this, Rich said you need to “bring together the conservation, organizing, and design communities together and invite them to the same party.”

Newark Riverfront Park / Smartgrowth.org

And then there are individuals who aren’t waiting around for the government to do something, but are starting their own new companies, schools, and movements. David Auerbach launched a company in the Mukuru slum of Kenya called Sanergy, which offers more sanitary restrooms than the standard pit latrine through a novel franchising model and significantly reduces urban water pollution. Users pay a small fee to the Sanergy restroom franchisee to use the restroom. Franchisees then safely collect the waste, which Sanergy picks up and turns into safe, organic fertilizer. Sanergy offers a promising solution to a “crappy problem”: 1 billion live in urban slums and 2 billion will by 2030. 4 billion live in communities where “waste is never treated.” There are 1 million deaths caused by poor sanitation each year.

At the age of 27, Murray Fisher started the public New York Harbor School, which teaches students in New York City maritime trades. Years later, the school moved to a new campus on Governor’s Island and now has 475 high school students, where they can receive credentials in aquaculture, vessel operations, marine biology, and more. After starting a new foundation, Fisher began the Billion Oyster Project, which aims to bring back that many oysters to New York City’s waters. The school engages the students in measuring the oysters the 20 million oysters they’ve planted, welding the reefs, and monitoring water quality. His goal is to “insert the local ecosystem back into the educational system” and eventually export his novel environmental education curricula to other communities who have eager students and significant unmet conservation and restoration needs. “Why can’t young people work on restoring ecosystems in school?”

Billion oyster project and NY Harbor School students / Energy Factor

And, lastly, Afroz Shah, a lawyer who lives in Mumbai, India, and was one of the most inspiring speakers at the summit, explained how he went from picking up trash by himself on the beloved beach where he used to play as a child to leading a movement of thousands who are cleaning up miles of urban Indian beaches. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) calls Shah’s effort the “world’s biggest beach clean-up,” with more than five million pieces of trash, mostly plastic bags, picked up.

Afroz Shah at a beach clean up / The Logical Indian

He wants everyone to ask themselves: “What are you doing to rectify things?” You can “complain on social media or sign a petition and wait for someone else to do something,” or get out there yourself and do something to make things better. “We have a fundamental duty to our oceans.”

And Some Species Have Even Found Opportunities in Suburbs and Cities: Animals are also seizing space in our cities, without waiting for an invitation. Roland Kays, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, explained how predatory fishers, which are like large weasels, are making a comeback in the suburbs of Albany, after being brought to the brink of extinction. Coyotes, which are hunted in rural areas, have discovered they are safer in suburbs and cities where residents are not allowed to fire a gun or run traps. Coyotes are now killing pets — “they really don’t like chihuahuas” — but they are helping to limit some pests, like geese. Wolves are now found in the Great Lakes region, mountain lions in Colorado and California, and leopards in urban India. “They are adapting to survive. If we give species a chance, they can survive.”

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