In Honor of Earth Day

April 19, 2008

For those working to protect the environment, the month of April is like New Year’s; the arrival of spring reminds us of the beauty and majesty of the natural environment.  We renew our resolve to protect that environment and Earth Day festivities help to educate and engage individuals and communities on a range of environmental issues. In light of all this, it makes sense that the Goldman Fund announces its annual Goldman Environmental Prize winners every April. Once again this year, six environmental activists, one from each continent (except Antarctica), received this prestigious award.  And once again, I am fortunate enough to know one of the recipients: Marina Rikhvanova from Russia.  Marina’s organization, Baikal Environmental Wave, is one of the cornerstone environmental NGOs in her country.  Despite a government which has become increasingly hostile towards the NGO community, Marina and her colleagues can claim some amazing accomplishments.  First and foremost was the successful fight to keep construction of the world’s longest oil pipeline away from the world’s deepest fresh water lake, Lake Baikal.  Oil and gas development are not the only threats to the lake and the surrounding region.  Marina is now leading the effort to stop the construction of a uranium enrichment center near the lake.  Taking on both the oil industry and the nuclear industry in Russia is no small task and Marina does this despite personal and professional risks.  Not everyone faces such daunting challenges, but recognizing those who do can and should inspire us to do more to protect the natural world around us in ways big and small.

Politicians, scientists and activists offer a range of options for reducing greenhouse gases in an effort to mitigate climate change. One popular approach is to expand the use of nuclear power, the so-called “clean” energy source. The argument is that nuclear power plants, when operated correctly and efficiently, release very little carbon into the atmosphere and could replace carbon-emitting coal plants.

While I am not a big fan of coal power plants, I see big problems with supplementing our energy production by building more nuclear power plants. Call me crazy, but I’ll take manageable air pollution over toxic waste we will have with us for MILLIONS of years. And while I applaud the increased interest in reducing greenhouse gases, there has to be a better way to address these concerns than by building more nuclear power plants.

Apparently I am not alone in thinking such things. Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, in cooperation with the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, has produced a report titled “Carbon-Free and Nuclear Free: A Roadmap for US Energy Policy.”

According to the press release for the report, “The overarching finding of this study is that a zero-CO2 U.S. economy can be achieved within the next thirty to fifty years without the use of nuclear power and without acquiring carbon credits from other countries. In other words, actual physical emissions of CO2 from the energy sector can be eliminated with technologies that are now available or foreseeable. This can be done at reasonable cost while creating a much more secure energy supply than at present. Net U.S. oil imports can be eliminated in about 25 years. All three insecurities – severe climate disruption, oil supply and price insecurity, and nuclear proliferation via commercial nuclear energy – will thereby be addressed. In addition, there will be large ancillary health benefits from the elimination of most regional and local air pollution, such as high ozone and particulate levels in cities, which is due to fossil fuel combustion.”

I admit that I haven’t read the full report, but clearly there are ideas out there that offer the opportunity to achieve the same goals voiced by the pro-nuclear crowd. Perhaps these ideas are worth a second look before we commit ourselves and our grandchildren to lifetimes of nuclear waste.

When an organization is described as a “foundation,” most people imagine the large, well-established groups in this country like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations whose capital originally came from historically wealthy entrepreneurs and business leaders. And while this holds true for some of the newer large foundations (the Gates Foundation being the primary example), many foundations and funds do not come from such dramatic beginnings, nor are they sustained in such a manner. All the same, their philanthropic efforts have a profound effect on the individuals and organizations they support. I would argue that the impact is greater because the connection between the grantor and the grantee is that much more personal. For those working to rid the world of nuclear and chemical weapons, the Ploughshares Fund is a case in point.

While the Fund was started from the wealth and vision of Sally Lilienthal, its continuation is based on contributions from individuals and other foundations. According to its website, the Ploughshares Fund is a “venture funder…specializ[ing] in giving start-up funding to promising new endeavors, and then helping to leverage more substantial support from other sources.” This entrepreneurial spirit means that the Fund values the inspired vision of individual activists. I first became familiar with Ploughshares as the Russia Program Manager for ISAR. The Fund played an important role in supporting ISAR’s work with anti-nuclear and nuclear safety groups in Russia. In all of my discussions and correspondence with Ploughshares staff, they wanted to understand how the Fund’s grants were effecting change and who specifically was involved in that change. For Ploughshares, the individual impact is one the most important ways in which the Fund assesses its success.

I was reminded of this when I read the Fund’s 2006 Annual Report. It celebrates the 25 year history of the Ploughshares Fund by highlighting ten “Ploughshares Heroes.” Each person profiled has made a significant contribution to making the world a safer and better place to live. The fact that these stories serve as the framework for the annual report, demonstrates the Fund’s commitment to change through targeted actions.  The heroic examples also illustrate the success of the Fund’s “venture philanthropy.”

While I understand the important role that large, well-endowed foundations play, I think the individualized approach of foundations like the Ploughshares Fund is just as critical in addressing the world’s biggest challenges.   I applaud the Fund’s efforts and congratulate the ten Heroes.

The man many refer to as the “Father of the Green Revolution,” Dr. Norman Borlaug, received the Congressional Gold Medal on July 17, 2007. He also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work to develop high yielding maize and wheat varieties. Winning these two awards puts Dr. Borlaug in the good company of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel, a clear indication that Dr. Borlaug’s efforts have made a worldwide impact. What is not clear is whether the long term results of his work have truly benefited its intended audience.

The history of agriculture is a history of adaptation. In the 10,000 or so years that humans have been growing food, they have adjusted the scope and approach to meet the demands of changing civilizations. The so-called “Green Revolution” is the latest stage in this history. In the mid 1940s the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, along with the US government, funded a program to increase agricultural production in Mexico. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center was a pilot project intended to increase crop yields in response to a rapidly growing global population and to avoid predicted widespread famines. The most intensive activity lasted until the early 1970s and was used in many parts of Asia. Dr. Borlaug was part of that initial effort in Mexico and continues to support biotechology to this day through a variety of venues, including the World Food Prize.

So how dramatic were the results of the Green Revolution? Very. According to Walt Parks at the University of Georgia, 300,000 metric tons of wheat were grown in Mexico in 1950. By 1970, due to the technology associated with Green Revolution, 2.6 million metric tons were grown. Worldwide, from 1950 to 1990, crop yields jumped from 14 million tons to 144 million tons, the number of famines decreased, caloric consumption per capita increased 25% and there was an overall rise in incomes and standards of living. At the same time, the ability to get more out of the same amount of land prevented the spread of farmland and the destruction of valuable forests and other ecosystems.

This initial overview seems to portray the Green Revolution as an undeniable success, but there have been some significant downsides. The biotechnology of the Green Revolution is dependent on pesticides, irrigation and fertilizers, all things which increase agricultural production costs, favor large farmers over small subsistence farmers and cause a number of environmental problems (e.g. salinization of aquifers, top soil erosion, and soil nutrient depletion). In addition, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations points out that in looking at the Green Revolution “two general trends are apparent: the wealthy have benefited more from technological change in agriculture than the less well off and men have benefited more than women.”

Do these negatives take away from the accomplishments of Dr. Borlaug and his Green Revolution colleagues? I say no. Yes, the problems caused by agricultural biotechnology are significant and clearly the Green Revolution did not accomplish all that was promised. Like any human endeavor it was not perfect. Dr. Borlaug himself has acknowledged that fact. Poverty and hunger still exist in the world, but the reality is that it will take more than just an increased amount of food to resolve the sources of those problems. As a global community we need to address the way in which resources are used and distributed if we are going to ensure that everyone has enough.

What I think is important about the story of Dr. Borlaug is that he did something. It may not have been the perfect resolution to the problem he was addressing and it may have had some unintended consequences, but it helped good number of people. Some people talk about billions when they talk about the numbers of beneficiaries of the Green Revolution.

How many people have you helped today?

Over the last several years award shows in the entertainment world have become a dime a dozen–it’s not just the Golden Globes, Oscars and Grammys…now there are a plethora of award events from which to choose. While the quantity has increased, I can’t say the same for the quality. More often than not these shows seem to be more about self-promotion and self-congratulation than acknowledging true merit.

Two environmental awards this week defy that trend and, unlike the Oscars, they don’t have to try hard to be “green.” On Monday (April 23), the Goldman Environmental Awards were announced in San Francisco. These annual awards are given to individuals from each continent except Antarctica to celebrate the achievements of local activists. Two years ago I had the privilege of personally knowing a Goldman Award winner, Kaisha Atakhanova, from Kazakhstan who led a grassroots campaign to stop the import of nuclear waste into her country. This year the recipients hail from Canada, Zambia, Mongolia, Peru, Ireland and Iceland and their individual efforts led to the preservation of a boreal forest, the establishment of a sustainable community development program, the protection of water resources from unregulated mining, the creation of a national reserve, the cessation of an illegally approved pipeline, and the protection of salmon. While the achievements themselves are clearly noteworthy, perhaps the more important achievement is the example the award recipients have set.

The Goldman Environmental Award has been called “the Nobel Prize for the environment” and it brings a great deal of attention and interest from those in and out of the environmental world. On a less grand scale, but just as important in my mind, are the awards the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA) gives out every year during its DC Days activities. I was fortunate enough to be present at last night’s (Tuesday, April 25) celebration where a number of activists, including one from Russia, were honored for their efforts to stop the spread of nuclear contamination, defend affected communities and fight the nuclear weapons complex. The most coveted award is the grassroots award goes to an individual who has made a difference at the local level and exemplifies the spirit of ANA. This year’s winner was Bobbie Paul, executive director of the Atlanta affiliate of Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND).

I don’t know Bobbie personally, nor do I know any of this year’s Goldman Award winners. What I do know is that their victories and achievements stretch far beyond them as individuals. Their victories are the victories of their communities and countries. Their victories are our victories because they are each doing their part to make this world a safer, cleaner, better place.

And for that I say THANK YOU.

Earth Day Everyday

April 23, 2007

Like most environmentally-conscious indviduals, I try to do my part to reduce my ecological footprint. That effort can be hit or miss, but as an eternal optimist I believe that the effort and the desire to do more are most important. The “misses” are usually do to a lack of time or just the propensity to be lazy in the midst of a busy schedule, like the days that I drive to the store when I could walk or throw away the messy ziploc bag instead of washing and reusing it. Sometimes the combination of laziness and desire to do good have some interesting results.

For example, right now our faucet in the kitchen drips. It used to only drip if you didn’t get the handle in just the right place, but the other day I realized that it drips regardless of how carefully you turn off the water. Clearly we need to fix the faucet, but it is one of those things that I only think about when I am in the kitchen trying to fix dinner or doing something else that doesn’t allow extra time for fiddling with the kitchen sink faucet. But I feel bad about the dripping and I know that we are wasting a reasonably large amount of water. So one night, I stuck a large cup under the faucet before going to bed. The next morning, the cup was filled to the rim, so I drank the water as I rushed around getting breakfast ready and put another cup under the faucet. This practice continued for a day or two before my husband got the idea to put the water filter container under the faucet and allow it to collect water. I have to say it actually works pretty well and takes care of two problems–keeping the perpetually empty water filter container filled and preventing us from wasting all the water that drips from the faucet.

Of course any process is not without its faults. Doing anything else in the sink while the filter is there is next to impossible. And while the drip is regular, it’s not the fastest filling process.

Maybe we should stop trying to be so creative and celebrate Earth Day by fixing the faucet.

Just a thought.

This week’s tragic events in Blacksburg demonstrate how one person can affect the lives of so many. Cho Seung Hui’s actions not only affected his immediate victims, but also their loved ones, the students and faculty at Virginia Tech and all of us who have watched the news unfold in the media. I often think of the potential impact of one person as a positive force in our society. And it is that positive impact on which I would like to focus, but I can’t help noticing that the negative is more often what grabs our attention.

Thankfully, there are other individuals who are making a difference in this world, for better and not for worse. Bill McKibben is the force behind the Step It Up 2007 campaign, which focused on bringing more attention to the issues of climate change and global warming. The kick off event, a “nationwide do-it-yourself mass protest” included more than 1,400 locally-organized events involving thousands of people all over the country on April 14. McKibben’s writings leading up to and since the event are heartfelt and inspiring. His enthusiasm embodies the kind of energy and commitment we need more of in our country and our world.

I started blogging last year when I took a break from the traditional 40 hour work week and explored the world of freelance consulting. As I continue that endeavor, I will use this blog as a place to share my thoughts on issues like climate change and organizational development, while also creating a center for resources and ideas. Check back weekly for new material and a take on the world through blue green glasses.

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