In India, Harshil, 17, m, advocates a “Green revolution for minimizing global warming in my country.” Carbon dioxide has increased to over 400 parts per million, up 40% from before industrialization, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Carbon dioxide emissions rose to a record high of 31.6 billion tons in 2012, with China the worst emitter, double the US by 2013. The amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is over 400 parts per million, although 350.org experts state that the maximum safe level is 350 parts per million. If fossil fuel burning continues at this rate, the planet will suffer from 450 parts per million possibly in a few decades, leading to irreversible climate changes. Coal, oil and natural gas projects in the works in China, Australia, the US, Indonesia, Canada, etc. could warm the planet by 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.[i] Other dangerous greenhouse gases join Co2, including methane from fracking natural gas, nitrous oxide from chemical fertilizers, and black soot. Agribusinesses is destroying the grasses and forests, especially the rain forest serving as the lungs of the planet, that used to contain greenhouse gases Factory farms with huge cattle lots contribute more greenhouse gas emissions than global transportation.
At the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 one of the few agreements was that increase in temperature shouldn’t rise beyond two degrees Celsius, about 3.6 Fahrenheit. In 2013, 520 scientists from 44 countries signed a report that emphasized the need for action now and offered some solutions.[ii] They warned, “By the time today’s children reach middle age, it is extremely likely that earth’s life-support systems, critical for human prosperity and existence will be irretrievably damaged. . . by human-caused environmental stressors, unless we take concrete, immediate actions. . . .“
NASA scientist James Hansen warned that two degrees of warming is “actually a prescription for long-term disaster,” as indicated by the damage already caused by the current increase of 0.8 Celsius. A third of the Arctic summer sea ice is gone, oceans are 30% more acidic and they’ve absorbed most of the heat added to the climate system during the last 50 years. The atmosphere over the oceans is 5% wetter leading to floods.[iii] As the oceans are warming it’s killing off coral reefs and plankton, the “web of marine life.” More than 40% of earth’s ice-free land has been plowed, paved, or otherwise disrupted. Even if we stopped increasing carbon dioxide now, warming will continue as carbon lasts a century. We’re also overloading the atmosphere with even more harmful methane, nitrous oxide (mainly from chemical fertilizers), and black soot from burning coal. Yet carbon emissions are predicted to increase by about 3% a year.
Global warming causes faster climate disruption than humans have ever experiences since they became a species, according to a call by more than 500 world scientists for urgent action. They predict more intense droughts, heat waves, and floods, so that parts of the megacity Mumbai, for example, could become uninhabitable due to storms and rising seas. Extreme weather changes cost about $80 billion a year, according to a 2012 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[iv] Not since the dinosaurs were wiped out have so many species died out so fast on land and in the sea.
Climate change is “the No. 1 national security issue for developing countries.”[v] Between 1991 and 2010, the ten countries most damaged by weather extremes were in the global South, with Bangladesh, Burma and Honduras at the top of the list.[vi] Climate change is most devastating in the developing countries where government social programs were slashed by lending agencies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in order to pay interest on national debt. It’s ironic that although poor countries contribute the least to global climate change, they suffer the most from greatest loss in annual rainfall and climate variability.
The UN Millennium report suggests that a simple step forward is eating less meat as it adds more greenhouse gases (18%) to the atmosphere than transportation. It takes 2,400 liters of water to make a hamburger: The average American eats, on average, 200 pounds of meat a year. The livestock industry produces up to 51% of greenhouse gas emissions and requires eight times more fossil fuel that what’s required to produce non-animal protein.[vii] China moved past the US as the largest polluter but it leads in searching for green alternatives, allocating $600 billion for green growth in its Five Year Plan for 2011 to 2015. Lester Brown lists various environmental solutions in his free book Plan B 4.0, including raising taxes on carbon emitters.[viii]
Inaction is not due to lack of knowledge about how to solve climate change, but, “It’s the lack of political will by most world leaders to confront the special interests that have worked long and hard to block the path to as sustainable low-carbon future,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Climate scientist Ken Caldeira thinks we may need geoengineering schemes to survive, such as spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect more sun rays back into space. He points out, “We got hit by a meteorite and knocked out the dinosaurs. And we’re another meteorite.”
A 90% reduction in fossil fuel use is required to save our planet, phasing out GMOs and factory farms, retrofitting buildings and transportation, global reforestation and holistic grazing, and bans on fracking and coal plants are required to save the planet.[ix] A small step away from fossil fuels is cities building bike lanes: New York City’s bike-sharing program, Citi Bike, is the largest in North America with 6,000 bikes available at 330 stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Painting flat roofs white and using LED light also helps conserve energy.
Pollution and Waste
About a quarter of the 90 million tons of pollution we put into the atmosphere daily will last more than 10,000 years, according to Al Gore in his book The Future. He advocates starting with a tax on carbon emissions to reduce global warming. Will we take action to prevent global warming; pollution of water, land and air; destruction of forests; and toxins in our food and water that estrogenize humans and animals and thus reduce male fertility? The US has 5% of the world’s population, uses one-quarter of the natural resources and produces 30% of the pollutants, only surpassed by China. Around 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops each year in the US.
Affluent parents in Chinese cities buy expensive air filters to protect their children from pollution that caused 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010 or rich families try to emigrate.[x] Others protest. The film Warriors of Qiugang documents villagers who worked with activist group Green Anhui to end pollution from chemical factories.[xi] Pollution is a growing problem in Asian cities, where the number of urban dwellers is expected to increase by 1.1 billion over the next 20 years. The US Nataional Academy of Sciences reported that Chinese living in the industrial north where some towns are clalled “cancer villages” die an average of five years earlier than those in the south. Clean Air Asia reported that only 16 out of 300 Asian cities were below the recommended pollution level in 2012, mostly in Japan.[xii] The Chinese State Council announced “tough measures” to reduce pollution emissions by at last 30% in problem industries by 2017. However, the problem is local officials understand that they are judged by growth and therefore are inclined to approve new polluting projects that increase GDP.
The World Bank predicted that urban waste will increase by 100% by 2025, although less than half the world’s population has adequate waste disposal.[xiii] The leading culprits in trash production are the US (over 2,000 pounds per person a year) and China, with Germany and Brazil also producing a lot of trash per capita. In developing countries I often see burning waste including plastic bottles, emitting toxic gas. Waste disposal sites generate 12% of the methane released into the atmosphere, more destructive than carbon dioxide. Toxic waste sites in 31 countries are damaging the brains and IQ of thousands of children with high levels of lead and other chemicals in the soil and water and impairing the health of others who live near the dumps and mine them for items to sell.[xiv] A study found that nearly nine million people live near 373 toxic waste sites in India, the Philippines and Indonesia, causing more deaths than malaria.
The amount of garbage we create is alarming: In the book and DVD about Stuff, Annie Leonard reports on her tour of 30 countries to see factories that make what we consume and the garbage dumps where our trash end up.[xv] In the US each American throws out more than seven pounds a day, but less than a quarter is recycled, unlike the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden.[xvi] They have mostly eliminated landfills with recycling programs and low-emission waste-to-energy plants.
Resource Scarcity and a Growing Population
With a growing middle class and increasing world population, the US National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) report predicts this will lead to scarcity of food and water, as well as not enough jobs. Demand for energy will increase by 50%, demand for food will go up by 35%, and for water by 40% (with a belt of the most water stress in northern Africa, the Middle East, central and southern Asia, and northern China—also the areas of largest projected population increase). Nearly half the world’s population will live in areas with severe water shortages. Global warming will intensify resource scarcities, which will encourage migration to urban areas that will house 60% of the world’s people. These megacities, “localism,” and regional alliances will be increasingly powerful.
To search for environmental solutions, the UN set up a panel on global sustainability in 2012 led by Jacob Zuma and Tarja Halonen, the respective presidents of South Africa and Finland.[xvii] Their report warns that by 2030 the world will need at least 50% more food, 45% more energy, and 30% more water. The report’s solutions include the need to listen to women, young people, and the poor.[xviii]
With a world population predicted to be 9.5 billion by 2050, increasing demand for meat and cars strains limited resources (China is the #1 consumer of cars). The number of cars in the world past one million in 2010, with millions more added each year. The corn used to make ethanol to fill a 25-gallon gas tank would feed one person for a year. Around 50 million people enter the middle class each year with desire to consume more. I was keenly aware of this contrast after visiting simple homes in Indonesia, Egypt, India and China--see my photos of their rooms contrasted to an English girl’s room.
The documentary film Mother: Caring for 7 Billion (2011) explains that the main environmental problem is the population explosion producing more consumers at a time when birth control and abortion are under fire in the US and other countries. Three billion people were added to the planet in the last 36 years, at a rate of about 78 million more births than deaths a year, as global life expectancy increased to 68 years.[xix] A UN Population Division report predicts a world population of over 10 billion by 2100, up from previous projections. The birth rate in Sub-Saharan Africa is twice the global rate (4.5 babies per woman vs. 2.5). Yet earlier concern about the “population bomb” has been silenced due to some religions’ opposition to birth control and abortion.
Nora, a USAID health expert who has worked in Africa added,
There needs to be more attention given on family planning and education! It is really too bad that talking about population dynamics and family planning went so out of style in the 80s, but I do see it making a resurgence, because there is no denying now that the demographic dividend is absolutely key to a country's development and prosperity. It's just too bad that Congress doesn't embrace that, and much of our funding is earmarked for AIDS.
Family planning methods are needed for the 215 million women in the world without the contraception they want, as more than two in five pregnancies are unplanned. In developing countries over one-third of girls are married before age 18. Pregnancy and childbirth-related health problems are the main killers of girls aged 15 to 19. Part of the reason poverty has significantly decreased in Latin America since 1990 is the decreasing birth rate, along with economic growth, social programs and expansion of education.[xx] Brazil, for example, gives out free condoms, half a billion of them in 2011, which they claim is more than any other government. Educating girls is the single most powerful influence on family size.
A “land grab” is occurring as Asian and Middle Eastern countries buy land and thus access to water in poor countries to guarantee food supply and agro-fuels.[xxi] These wealthy countries include China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia. So far, the World Bank calculated that land about the size of Pakistan was purchased, two-thirds of it in Africa. China announced in 2012 that it would lend $20 billion to African governments for infrastructure development. The US is also expanding military bases in Africa and fighting shadow wars in Yemen and Somalia.[xxii]
A UN report estimates that 135 million farmers may be driven from their land because of soil degradation. When farmers have to leave their land they migrate to cities where some may have no recourse but to resort to illegal ways to make money, as discussed in Topic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence by Christian Parenti (2011). He explains that food prices go up with reduced production of basics like wheat, soybeans and soy, a burden for people who spend 40% of their earnings on food like the average Egyptian. Food riots caused by price hikes in 2007-2008 occurred in more than 24 countries and food shortages can lead to starvation and mass migrations.[xxiii] A UN report addressed the need for agroecology, the science of sustainable agriculture, endorsed by 59 countries (not including the US) and the Nourish 9 Billion campaign.[xxiv]
By 2030, if current rates of consumption continue, we would need the resources of two planets, which we obviously don’t have.[xxv] The US is the top consumer. Australian Paul Gilding, author of The Great Disruption: How the Climate Crisis Will Transform the Global Economy (2011), believes we’re using five times more resources than the world can sustain so it would take not two but five planets to support current consumption. The point is we’re running out of resources like oil and fresh water. Gilding believes “The Great Disruption” is inevitable. It started in 2008 with the increase in food and oil prices and ecological changes such as melting ice caps. It takes a crisis to take action and Gilding thinks we’re there. He predicts that new companies will reshape the economy and progress won’t be measured by quantity of stuff produced but by happiness indexes.
Governments measure economic health by growth, increase in consumption that the planet can’t support, so a new standard of success should be quality of life. Bhutan pioneered a new metric with its “Gross National Happiness” model with 72 indicators, including free healthcare, education for girls, and sustainable agriculture. More than half of the country is protected in national parks and reserves and 99% of children are in school. The United Nations General Assembly adopted Bhutan’s 2012 resolution titled “Happiness: Toward a Holistic Approach to Development.” Bhutan’s prime minister told the UN gathering, “The present GNP development model no longer makes economic sense because it compels boundless growth on a planet with limited resources.”[xxvi] UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for replacing the current economic system with one that recognizes that “social, economic, and environmental well-being is indivisible.”
The UN Millennium Project report points out that the population in developing countries is increasing while food prices are rising, fresh water resources are drying up, corruption and organized crime are on the rise, and climate change is accelerating. The researchers point out that we know how to solve these problems. They look hopefully to the coming biological revolution to bring answers more profound than even the industrial or information revolutions. This revolution may develop synthetic life forms for food, water, medicine and energy. Information sharing via computers and the Internet could lead to tele-education and tele-medicine to make this information available to half the world’s population that lives in poverty.
Globally, investments in renewable energy surpassed investments in fossil fuels for the first time in 2010. Germany is a leader in producing renewable energy by providing incentives for individuals to install solar panels and other resources. Solar power creates 23 gigawatts of energy daily due to 1.3 million solar systems found in homes and offices. Utilities pay a high rate to individuals or companies that produce electricity with clean energy. The funding comes from a small increase in monthly utility fees. The Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley is developing fuel made from sugar sources such as corn, grasses, and eucalyptus—any fast growing plant. Hawaii is another model of advances in solar energy.[xxvii] Because Saudi Arabia can run out of crude oil, perhaps by 2030, the government has allocated more than $100 billion to develop solar energy. China is the leader in producing renewable energy and has set goals for production, unlike the US.[xxviii]
For the US as a whole, most (82%) of the new electrical generation installed in the first three months of 2013 consisted of renewable energy sources (biomass, geothermal, solar, water, wind.)[xxix] Google has invested more than $1 billion in renewable power—wind farms and solar, the largest player that is not an energy company or financial institution. Its Google Energy subsidiary sells electricity generated from these projects. MIT researchers Vladimir Bulovic and Richard Lunt developed a transparent solar cell that can be applied to windows. Solar powered lamps are available to replace kerosene lanterns: D.light sells them to developing countries, one of the growing number of companies selling to the “bottom of the pyramid.”[xxx] A California family was able to eliminate most waste, only an amazing jar full in a year. They describe how on their blog Zero Waste Home.[xxxi]
Living in harmony with our environment doesn’t need to be at odds with lifting people out of poverty. Peru launched a program to bring solar panels to 500,000 homes of its poorest citizens without electricity. In Bangalore, India, a utility company installed a solar panel, as on a 25-year-old rice farmer’s house. He makes payments for the electric power it generates by using an application on his mobile phone. When he pays off the cost of the system, he’ll have free power instead of dirty kerosene lamps and having to walk 45 minutes to a nearby town to charge his phone. These microgrids for mobile phones in areas without electric utilities are part of the Third Industrial Revolution, says author Jeremy Rifkin.[xxxii]
Buildings can generate energy to put back in the grid, like the Richardsville Elementary School in Bowling Green, Kentucky. It earns about $2,000 a month using solar power and geothermal power, with solar tubes piping sunlight into classrooms. It employs an energy manager to improve school efficiency and students are involved in monitoring energy use. The Bullitt Center in Seattle was built according to a green building certification program called the Living Building Challenge, which includes generating the structure’s own solar energy and water. Rainwater showers are available for workers who bicycle to the building and composting toilets produce compost for farming. Habitat for Humanity is building Eco-Villages in places like River Walls, Wisconsin, that produce their own power with green sources like solar panels and geothermal heating. Rainwater is saved for the community garden and edible landscaping and residents can share a car.
A 19-year-old Dutch engineering student, Boyan Slat invented a device to help clean up the five plastic debris clustered in giant gyres—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is about twice the size of Texas.[xxxiii] The recovered plastic can be recycled to help pay for the cleanup. The cleaner is powered by solar and waves.
These solutions to these world problems have a common theme: Think globally, act locally. Environmentalist Bill McKibben’s solution for how to slow pollution is to do more locally, smaller, and slower in the communities where we live (see www.350.org), as well as campaigning for large institutions to divest oil stocks. Students are actively lobbying their universities to divest with some successes.[xxxiv] A model of this act locally approach is provided by a privileged Indian named Sanjit Roy who visited a rural village for the first time when he was 20. As a consequence, he decided to start a Barefoot College in Rajasthan to teach poor women from around the world to make simple green technology like solar panels and cookers, and other assists to rural development.[xxxv] Books provide models for how to develop local economies and communities, as well as organizations like the Transition Movement that “seeks to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis.”[xxxvi]
Neus, a Spanish graduate student, predicts a new localized economic system because of economic difficulties:
Spain still has the Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equity. I guess that Equity is the part that receives less money, especially now that we have the right wing party. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is a joke in many regards, a super puppet who doesn't know that much and just follows rules. He is very narrow-minded. I see more unemployment coming, and less social services and benefits. It seems that what it is going on is a clear beginning of the new economic system where more people will be unemployed due to the increasing technology efficiency. People will barter and develop green energy and grow organic food. We will have to strengthen the social organizations, NGOs and grassroots in order to rebuild regional economies more in tune with their environment and community. In order for that to happen we need open-minded governments willing to let go of their current power and help in this transition where local governments are going to be the key.
A New Economy leader, Helena Norberg-Hodge founded the International Society for Ecology and Culture. Like other leaders, she envisions the new system as focusing on local economy and community.[xxxvii]
An evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson described how he applied biology to improve local quality of life in Binghamton, NY, in The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time (2011). In order for groups to cooperate successfully he found they need to utilize eight design principles: strong group identity and sense of purpose, seeing reward for your work, consensus decision-making, a way to monitor progress, reasonable and graduated sanctions for those who don’t follow the principles, fair conflict resolution, local autonomy and decision-making with coordination with larger groups. Other suggestions for neighborhood building are listed in an article about “10 Ways to Love Where You Live” and The Village to Village Network.[xxxviii]
[i] “Point of No Return,” February 11, 2013, Greenpeace.
[ii] “48 Stanford Scientists Sign Global Environmental Consensus Statement,” Stanford Woods Institute for Environment, May 23, 2013.
[iii] Bill McKibben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012.
[v] Walden Bello, “Weapons for the Weak in the Climate Struggle,” August 16, 2012.
[vi] Stephen Leahy, “Extreme Weather is the New Normal,” Inter Press Service, April 3, 2012.
[vii] Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change,” World Watch Magazine, July 2010.
[ix] Zack Kaldveer and Ronnie Cummins, “Food, Farms, Forests and Fracking: Connecting the Dots,” Organic Consumers Association, May 9, 2013.
[x] Edward Wong, The New York Times, April 1, 2013.
[xii] Bettina Wassener, “Asian Cities’ Air Quality Getting Worse, Experts Warn,” The New York Times, December 5, 2012.
[xiii] Stephen Lacey, “Waste Expert, Think Progress: Climate Progress,” June 20, 2012.
[xiv] Stephen Leahy, “Toxic Waste on Par with Malaria as a Global Killer,” Inter Press Service, May 9, 2013.
[xvi] Edward Humes, “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” Sierra Magazine, March, 2012.
[xvii] Jacob Zuma and Tarja Halonen, “Seizing Sustainable Developments,” Project Syndicate, February 6, 2012.
[xviii] “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing”
[xix] Malcolm Potts, et al., “Editorial,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Biological Sciences, 2009.
[xxi] Graham Peebles, “The Ethiopian Land Giveaway,” Redress News, June 2, 2012.
[xxii] Nick Turse, “Obama’s Scramble for Africa,” Huffington Post, July 12, 2012.
[xxiii]Michael Klare, “Post-Apolcalyptic Fantasy Becomes Everyday Reality,” The Nation Institute, August 7, 2012.
[xxvi] Costas Christ, “Happy Talk in Bhutan,” National Geographic Traveler, October, 2012, p. 34.
[xxvii] Erin McCoy, “Building a Solar Economy: 4 Lessons from Hawaii,” Yes! Magazine, April 8, 2012.
[xxviii] Janine Zaharia, “Saudis Investing to Go Green,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 4, 2013.
[xxix] Energy Infrastructure Update Report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of Energy Projects. The rest came from natural gas. Wind was the leading producer.
[xxxii] Benn Sills, et al., “Farmers Foil Utilities Using Cell Phones to Access Solar,” Bloomberg News, April 11, 2012.
Rob Hopkins. The Transition Handbook: For Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009.
Jay Walljasper. All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. The New Press, 2010.
Joel Catchlove, “The New Economic Visionaries,” Pulse Wire, August 21, 2009.
[xxxviii] Ross Chapin, “10 Ways to Love Where You Live,” Yes!, June 14, 2012.
Beacon Hill Village’s The Village Concept: A Founders’ Manual. http://www.beaconhillvillage.org/content.aspx?page_id=22&club_id=332658&module_id=77064
Jay Walljasper. All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. New Press, 2010.