3/27/2013 2:56:35 PM
The idea of a protected commons was central to early Islam, and
to Muhammad’s vision of a just society. Today, Muslim environmentalists are reviving
this concept to protect threatened ecosystems throughout the Muslim world.
This article originally appeared at OntheCommons.org.
A glance at history turns
up the names of many heroes—from Robin Hood to Chief Joseph to Gandhi—who stood
up to protect the commons on behalf of future generations. One name from
history not likely to be associated with the commons is Muhammad. Yet the holy
prophet of the Islamic world sought to preserve special landscapes for
everyone. Today, Muslim environmentalists are trying to reinvigorate this
There was an ancient Middle
Eastern tradition of setting aside certain lands, called hima (“protected
place” in Arabic), for the enjoyment of local chieftains. Muhammad “transformed
the hima from a private enclave into a public asset in which all community
members had a share and a stake, in accordance with their duty as stewards
(khalifa) of God’s natural world,” according to Tom Verde, a scholar of Islamic
studies and Christian-Muslim relations.
In the seventh century,
Muhammad declared the region of Al-Madinah, now the holy city of Medina, “to be a
sanctuary; its trees shall not be cut and its game shall not be hunted.” Many
of the hima lasted well into the 20th century, when the tradition fell
victim to modern beliefs about land ownership.
Now Middle Eastern
environmentalists are invoking the idea of hima to protect the region’s
threatened woodlands, grasslands, wetlands, and rangelands. In 2004 the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon
helped local residents establish two of the first new hima in the hilltop town
es-Saqi. “The hima has had a very positive effect in the community,” said Kasim
Shoker, mayor of a nearby town. “Not only has it helped improve the economy
[through ecotourism], but it has made the local people recognize the value of
the land and have greater respect for its biodiversity.”
five himas have been established in Lebanon,
and a “workshop”
was held last in Istanbul to promote the ideas
throughout the Middle East.
Image of the ancient Aanjar Castle,
a World Heritage Site in Lebanon’s
Hima Aanjar by Arian
Zwegers, licensed under Creative Commons.
11/13/2012 4:16:48 PM
“We are not responsible for climate
change—it’s the big industries that are,” said Abelardo, a young man from the
Tseltal Mayan village of Amador Hernández in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas. “So why should
we be held responsible, and even punished for it?”
Abelardo was one of dozens of villagers
who had traveled to the city of San
Cristóbal de las Casas to protest an international
policy meeting on climate change and forest conservation. At a high-end
conference center, representatives from the state of California and from states and provinces
around the world were working out mechanisms intended to mitigate climate
change by protecting tropical forests. The group was called the Governor’s
Climate and Forests Task Force (GCF), and California’s
interest was in using forest preservation in Chiapas as a carbon offset—a means for
meeting climate change goals under the state’s 2006 Global Warming Solutions
Such an agreement among subnational
governments is unprecedented, and California
officials view it as an important way for the world’s eighth largest economy to
help the developing world. But judging from the reaction on the streets of San Cristóbal, Mexican
peasants see it differently. The lush, mountainous state of Chiapas has a long history of human rights
abuses, and the Mexican government has forcibly evicted indigenous families
from their lands in the name of environmental protection. To indigenous
peasants in the Lacandon jungle, the pending agreement has all the hallmarks of
a land grab.
And such culture clashes over land and
forests may become more common: As scientists, economists, and governments
worldwide struggle to find solutions to runaway climate change, they are
investing in one-size-fits-all financial strategies for emissions reductions in
developing countries. These policies tend to ignore local needs, land tenure
issues, small-scale economies, cultural practices, and histories. Communities
in developing countries are raising concerns that, in some instances, these
alleged cures may be worse than the disease.
The GCF was founded in 2009 when 16 states
and provinces, from California to Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, and from
Cross-River State, Nigeria, to Acre, Brazil, decided to explore ways to
implement a program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest
Degradation (REDD). REDD is a program intended to fight climate change by
stopping deforestation. Under REDD, the industrialized North hopes to offset
carbon emissions by paying the global South to preserve forests (which store
carbon). Since its acceptance into U.N. climate negotiations in 2005, the
program has grown popular among international agencies and governments
interested in funding rural development—and has generated fierce resistance
among sectors of the rural poor and indigenous peoples.
When indigenous peasant farmers in Chiapas hear that
they’ll be paid to stop growing traditional crops and reforest with African
palm trees, they see signs of a familiar pattern. And when they’re told that
they may have to leave their jungle villages to allow the forest to recover,
they’re acutely aware of the ongoing theft of their lands. In Chiapas, both projects—the planting of
biofuel crops and the forced resettlement of forest communities—are linked to
the local implementation of REDD.
To indigenous peasants in
the Lacandon jungle, the pending agreement has all the hallmarks of a land grab.
Agencies and policy leaders acknowledge
the tension, but are sometimes dismissive of the depth of the problem. William
Boyd, senior advisor to the GCF and a professor of law at the University of Colorado,
said, “Any broad public policy is going to generate opposition. We understand
that, and we see the need to do a better job at communicating our objectives.”
But the problem is not merely communication. It is an issue of fundamentally
different ways of viewing the world. León Enrique Ávila, an agronomist and
professor of sustainable development at the Intercultural University of
Chiapas, sees REDD as “a continuation of the colonial project to do away with
the indigenous worldview.”
Ávila’s work is strongly rooted in the
indigenous concept of lekil kuxlejal, or el buen vivir—a complex worldview
involving harmony among people, the environment, and the ancestors. According
to this way of thinking, people are a part of—not apart from—nature. From this
perspective, even apparently benign Western notions of wealth, development,
conservation, and sustainability are as alien and as hostile as the more
recognized ills of consumerism, individualism, and war.
“REDD and projects of this type,” Ávila
said, ignore “that nature [has its own] rights, and treat it as a provider of
goods and services, a purely economic entity. This perspective is fundamentally
hostile to lekil kuxlejal.”
closely watched partnership
Of numerous REDD projects worldwide, the
agreement between California and Chiapas, expected to come online by 2015, is
the most advanced, and was the subject of great interest at the Chiapas GCF
meeting. “We are all watching the California-Chiapas project closely,” said
Iwan Wibisono of the Indonesian National REDD+ Task Force.
In 2006, California passed the Global Warming
Solutions Act, which mandates that the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions to
1990 levels by the year 2020. Under the act’s implementation plan, approved by
the California Air Resources Board in 2011, 15 to 20 percent of the state’s
mandated emission reductions will come from a cap-and-trade program that
regulates the state’s major industrial polluters. The program allows polluters
to meet part of their emissions-reduction targets by purchasing carbon credits.
Also known as offsets, these let a company pay someone else to reduce CO2
emissions instead of reducing pollution at the source. Currently, the state
only allows offsets in the United
States. But if the REDD plan goes through, California companies
could pay states in some of the world’s most forested regions not to cut down
As one of his last acts in office, former
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a memorandum of understanding
with Chiapas, opening the door for California industries to
buy offsets generated there. (Other states working on similar agreements with California include Acre, Brazil, Aceh, Indonesia, and Cross-River State, Nigeria).
Two years later, the protocols for this
agreement are still in development by a non-governmental body called the REDD
Offsets Working Group, which is expected to release its recommendations before
the end of 2012.
In preparing for the GCF meeting in San
Cristóbal, a number of Chiapas-based civil society groups formed a coalition
called REDDeldía (the English translation would be “REDD-ellion,” as in
“rebellion”), which held a parallel forum denouncing the GCF and REDD. The
group’s statement, issued in advance of the GCF meeting, called REDD “the new
face, painted green by the climate crisis, of an old and familiar form of
colonialism that advances the appropriation of lands and territories through
dispossession and forced displacement.” That sentiment was echoed by a similar
forum convened in San Cristóbal
the same week by La Vía Campesina, the world’s largest federation of peasant
For groups in Chiapas, these concerns are rooted in recent
local history. In 1971, the Mexican government issued a decree that gave about
1.5 million acres of the Lacandon jungle to the Lacandon Maya—one of several
ethnic groups that call the region their home—while retaining the rights to
exploit timber, minerals, and other resources. A second decree in 1976 made the
greater part of the jungle—the area with the richest biodiversity in Mexico—into a
UNESCO World Heritage site called the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.
Along with a few settlements from the
Tseltal and Ch’ol ethnic groups, who negotiated their way into the agreement,
the nominal owners of this territory were designated “the Lacandon Community.”
But the creation of the Lacandon Community came with a political cost: in order
to give the Lacandon Maya 1.5 million acres of forest, 26 villages of Tseltal
and Ch’ol people—over 2,000 families who had lived there for decades, if not
centuries—had to be moved.
After their expulsion, several peasant
farmer organizations demanded redress, and the resulting tension between the
Lacandon Community and its neighbors made it impossible, for decades, for the
Mexican government to successfully demarcate the territory. The demarcation
line became known as la brecha Lacandona—“brecha” meaning split, schism, or
gap. Some of the expelled communities later coalesced to form the Zapatista
Army of National Liberation, the indigenous rebel group that brought Chiapas to the world’s
attention with their 1994 uprising. Among the proto-Zapatistas and the other
peasant farmer groups in the region in the 1970s, one of the primary political
slogans was “No to la brecha Lacandona!”
With REDD, work is underway again to draw
la brecha Lacandona. In February, 2011, Chiapas Governor Juan Sabines began
distributing payments of 2,000 pesos a month to members of the Lacandon
Community as part of the state’s Climate Change Action Program, and the state
began expelling “illegal settlers” from the Montes Azules Reserve.
“The jungle was previously occupied by
over 900 communities,” Sabines told the GCF at the opening plenary. “Now we
have cleared them from the jungle. Today the Reserves are being conserved and
protected by their legitimate owners, who will soon have access to the carbon
Among the communities slated for removal
from the jungle is the village of Amador Hernández—1,500 Tseltal Mayan
subsistence farmers who escaped plantation servitude in the 1950s to make their
homes in bare wooden huts and cultivated scattered cornfields in the area that
is now the Montes Azules Reserve. On the first day of the three-day GCF
meeting, several campesinos from Amador Hernández and neighboring communities
entered the auditorium and requested a few minutes at the microphone. Chiapas
State Minister of the Environment and Natural History Fernando Rosas denied their
request, telling the community members that they should listen first to the
meeting’s proceedings. If they wanted to consider joining the REDD program, the
minister told them, he would meet with them at a later date.
Unsatisfied, the campesinos mounted a
protest. They handed out flyers declaring, “The government is lying to you—they
have neither informed us nor consulted us!” Eufemia Landa Sanchez, a woman from
a deforested region on the edge of the Montes Azules Reserve, then took the
microphone and read a message to the plenary.
“Transnational businesses have had plans
for the rural areas of Chiapas
for some time now,” Sanchez said. “The natural wealth of biodiversity and
water, of mines, of biofuels, and of course of petroleum, have led to the displacement
of people, the poisoning of the earth, and have made the peasant farmer into a
serf on his own land. And in every case they blame us and criminalize us. Our
supposed crime today is that we are responsible for global warming.
“Why do the wealthy want to impose their
will by force?” she continued. “The jungles are sacred, and they exist to serve
the people, as God gave them to us. We do not go to your countries and tell you
what to do with your lives and your lands. We ask that you respect our lives and
our lands, and go back where you came from!”
in the balance
Insiders in the GCF projected that, given
the complexities of linking an emerging market in California to forested lands
abroad, and the level of controversy in Chiapas, the Chiapas-California plan
has no better than a 50/50 chance of coming to fruition. Aside from the 2010
agreement, no formal protocols have been approved by the two states. And, aside
from a $1.5 million grant to the GCF from the U.S. State Department and hope
that a so-far hypothetical carbon market will provide some stable cash flow, little
funding is on the horizon.
“If we can’t build a $6 million fund to
make this happen, then we’ve got to think about other options,” said Boyd.
“Among these options, we’re looking at innovative models for leveraging private
Three weeks after the Chiapas GCF meeting,
the California Air Resources Board (ARB) received a visit at its Sacramento office from a group of environmental justice
advocates with ties to the Global South—including an anthropologist who works
closely with Amador Hernández, an indigenous leader from Brazil, and
representatives of Friends of the Earth U.S. They drew a picture of land grabs,
government repression, and related abuses, and urged state officials to drop
all consideration of international forest offsets in California climate policy.
Edie Chang, assistant division chief for the ARB, thanked the visitors for
raising the issues, and assured them, “We’ve told these governments that we’re
far from making a decision.”
Jason Gray, the ARB’s staff counsel,
acknowledged the concerns as well: “We really only want to work with
jurisdictions that engage in consultation and participatory processes. … We
understand the political risks. … We would only want to be involved if California can take a
What that leadership looks like remains to
be seen. But if land and culture are threatened by any policy advanced by the
GCF, indigenous peasant farmers in Chiapas
will not back down without a fight. “These campesinos don’t want a revolution
to change they way they live,” explained León Ávila, echoing the words of
Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. “They want a revolution because they
want to continue living as they always have.”
of San Cristóbal,
where the GCF meeting took place, by barenuckleyellow,
licensed under Creative
This post was originally published by
YES! Magazine, and is licensed under Creative Commons. To repost, follow these steps.
10/17/2012 11:57:10 AM
Editor's note: The following is a companion piece to "Power of Nature" from the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Utne Reader (pages 48-50). In that article, futurists Gitte Larsen, Søren Steen Olsen and Steen Svendsen of House of Futures in Denmark paint a vision of the future where we realize that everything is nature and so are we; that we are one with the earth and share a common biology and collective consciousness. The following is an equally optimistic alternate vision of the future where humanity realizes that when it puts its collective mind toward something, it's capable of developing technologies, organizations, political institutions and business models that allow for prosperity without jeopardizing the planet.
In 2112, we live in a “man-made world.” If you look at that world from a 2012 perspective, you will be surprised by the responsibility that we, as humans, exhibit towards nature—the clean cities, the fertile landscape, the light-touch clean economy and the high prosperity. You will be fascinated by the new technology and new innovations, and you may be shocked by the changes in human physiology. But you will recognize general social patterns.
Let us give you the story of how this future unfolds, where it has its historic roots and what drives the transformation. Then let us describe to you the future perception of nature. Finally let us portray what politics, business, living, art, science and technology will look like in this world.
Drivers and Background
The mindset that drives “man-made world” is responsible determination. It is informed by the realization that human activity has created a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, where we have become the most important driving force for changing Earth’s geology, climate, and ecosystems. We are responsible and we have to assume this responsibility. “man-made world” is created by vigorous political initiative and rational science-based planning. And it arguably has its roots stretching back all the way to the Club of Rome with its message of “limits to growth” due to the finiteness of fossil energy and raw materials reserves. This gave rise to an increasing awareness of nature’s boundaries to human activities. Also, it led to a process of institutionalized global political consultation, negotiation and formulation of targets. The Brundtland commission and Kyoto protocols were some early milestones in a process with plenty of twists and bumps along the way to the Anthropocene breakthrough.
In the 1970s, the oil crisis that ended the three decades of historically unprecedented economic growth worked as a powerful demonstration of the exact vulnerabilities that “limits to growth” had pointed out. This run of events was a precursor for the early decades of the 21st century when increasing temperatures, hurricanes, floods and droughts put pressure on our resources and economies thereby demonstrating the message from the scientific community about planetary boundaries. The ideas driving "man-made world" were under ways for many decades, and often quite high on the agenda of public discourse and policy. They were picked up by media, by NGOs and grassroot movements, and by segments of consumers and producers. But the wholesale radical change that marks “man-made world” required a new generation of political leaders taking over as the old generation failed to inspire and weren’t up to tackling the challenges.
It became clear that global action on a massive scale was needed in order to reverse, mitigate and/or adapt to the challenges. Consequently we saw a refocusing and a revitalization of political processes on local, national, regional, and global levels. New generations of policy entrepreneurs were taking the lead in taking responsibility.
Perception of Nature
A strong and conscious perception of nature is absolutely central in the "man-made world." We see nature as a living system and a wonderful resource. We can rely on it to provide us with much of the material basis for our existence. But nature is a finite resource. Since the industrial revolution, humans have become the single most powerful force affecting nature’s development, changing physical landscapes, climate, material metabolisms and biodiversity, both globally and locally. We are living in a geological epoch of our own making. This was a call on us to be responsible and rational in how we use the world’s resources. We learned to be knowledgeable and conscious about how our activities effect the fragile balanced of nature.
Nature requires us to keep researching and studying nature, as well as ourselves and the interplay between human societies and nature. Nature inspires us to recognize the beauty and endless opportunities and scope for innovation that it presents us with, but also to be acutely aware and mindful of the boundaries that nature sets for our utilization.
We must assume responsibility. We must acquire the means to control and manage our own power and collective behavior in order to harness nature without damaging it. We need to take on the role of responsible and conscientious custodians, stewards or managers of nature—like any landowner would his property—all in order to be able to continue to be the biggest beneficiaries of nature.
Previously it was sometimes said that we knew what needed to be done, we just didn’t know how to do it politically. It was somewhat natural to take a cynical view given the previously disappointingly inadequate political action even in the face of a long-standing public awareness of the challenges. We were irresponsibly gambling with the future of the planet. Everybody was waiting for someone else to take the lead and do something.
The emergence of a new generation of political leaders changed the dynamics. It was a generation whose outlook was shaped by the ongoing debate on sustainability and by growing impatience and frustration with the inadequacy of political response. They entered the scene with an ambitious outlook, a firm belief that change is possible, and a deep sense of responsibility towards nature and future generations.
There was a new optimism and enthusiasm for what we can accomplish. A feeling that we actually can make a better world if we put our minds to it. “So let us be masters of our own fate and take responsibility for the destiny of our planet. We can do it!”as one political leader famously put it.
Growing public realization that old methods and politics simply couldn’t deliver urged a tectonic shift in the balance between old vested interests and forward-looking interests. The new political agenda was global in its worldview and resonated with people everywhere, especially younger generations. Beginning in northwestern Europe and the EU, governments all over the world devised and implemented strategic policies using a variety of instruments. The frontrunners were countries where there was a strong awareness of the importance of a new course; a culture which was influenced by a generally high level of economic development and public welfare, and above all by education; a culture based on co-creation.
The global process that unfolded was partly negotiated, cooperative, and coordinated, and partly an uneven process of pioneers and emulators, leaders and followers. International and global institutions gained renewed relevance and were quick to pick up on this agenda assuming their designated role as facilitators of global political dialogue and will.
Democracy and revitalized primarily due to the system’s ability to respond to the challenge, but also because of a new political culture based on a dynamic development in digital and local platforms creating a new responsiveness between people and politicians.
As for strategies, one key was to get prices right. Tax systems were used in various and often innovative ways to ensure that prices reflected true ecological costs. Another key was investing massively in sustainable infrastructure: energy, smart grids, transportation systems, welfare technology, recycling and waste disposal. A third key was support for open source technological development and sustainable innovation. The overall effect was to move the economy on to a new path of development.
Once the political direction was clear, business and consumers were remarkably quick to respond. Breakthroughs in solar, wind, smart grids, waste disposal and material technologies came in rapid succession and were speedily implemented. New patterns of consumption and production emerged that were radically more friendly to the environment. A light-touch, clean and prosperous economy emerged.
What was most surprising to many in the beginning of the transition was that the structural changes to the economic system went hand in hand with economic boom. The new ecologically sustainable economic system was highly competitive.
Frontrunners were those who not only responded to new pricing signals and market demands but who truly comprehended the new policy direction and based their vision and strategy on it. They were the ones who delivered the myriad of new products, services and business models that built the light-touch economy.
The transformation that was set in motion succeeded in completely replacing the fossil fuel based economy with one that was based on energy from clean, renewable sources. It saw a materials revolution driven by the development of new eco-friendly synthetic materials, and by the super-efficient recycling markets and waste disposal systems. And not only did it succeed, but success came much faster than anyone had predicted, or even thought possible. Once set in motion the process quickly gained momentum and became self-reinforcing as political initiative, political response and technological innovation combined in a powerful drive for sustainability and renewed prosperity.
In fact, a dynamic arose in which countries, economies and businesses that embraced sustainable strategies became economic powerhouses and front-runners. To be stuck in the age of gasoline and coal was the biggest structural danger to an economy. Some large companies, notably those rich in fossil fuels, and those poor in political effectiveness, struggled to make the transition but eventually followed suit. We have learned that responsible management of our relationship with nature is not only right. It is also highly rewarding in many regards.
Living and Art
Life in the light-touch society is high-prosperity, low-impact. Intelligent systems handled the metabolic exchange with nature, and secured the safe and efficient recycling of materials and disposal of waster. Our relationship with nature was respectful and sustainable. As people lived in clean and attractive built environments, nature was not top-of-mind all the time. Many people spend a lot of their time in digitized virtual reality rather than in nature. At the same time people very much appreciated nature, and it still had a powerful appeal. It offered great experiences whether you were an adventurer seeking extreme authenticity, or whether you would rather opt for themed nature resorts where people could experience sights and landscapes, some with carefully managed stocks of wild animals. Prehistoric theme parks complete with dinosaurs and swans were particularly popular.
Remarkably, art became big business and the single most dynamic sector in the economy. This was a result of prosperity and individualism that saw art as the ultimate form of self-actualization. The ability to create and appreciate artistic expressions was the ultimate human characteristic, one that was eagerly sought after and high in demand. New technologies and knowledge of the functioning of the human brain and body have opened up a variety of new artistic fields and art forms.
But the one parameter that came to dominate the field was authenticity. That is, the experience of a significant event which takes place at a particular place and time and therefore is unique and cannot be replicated. The development and careful staging of such events constituted a large and fast growing part of the economy and employment. New artistic megahalls and art stadiums sprang up in cities around the world in fierce competition for the most prestigious and creative public spaces for art activities.
The goal was to merge intellect and intuition in new ways, constantly experimenting with new forms of human consciousness, expression of language, story-telling, sound, music, imagery, and sensory stimulation. To many this kind of endeavor was the closest thing to having a meaning of life.
Science and Technology
Science was very visible and important driver in the transition to a sustainable "man-made world," and the string of technological breakthroughs that it spurned gave it a new-found prestige in society. Big science made a decisive comeback, not least when cheap and clean nuclear fusion energy came on stream by the latter half of the 21st century. Their cool and quiet gigantic domes were an aesthetically pleasing addition to the landscape.
Science pursued further advancement in a range of fields stretching from genetics to space. Sophisticated modeling was applied to complex systems such as ecosystems, climate and weather in order to optimize our management of them and in order to facilitate advances in the dynamic field of geo-engineering. There was a new focus on anticipation and prevention instead of problem fixing and symptom treatment.
The scientific study of nature kept offering exciting opportunities to learn from something that was not human-made. The extraction and storage of genetic information from all life forms was one project that promised to enable regeneration of any extinct species that might be deemed valuable or interesting. Given advanced knowledge of managing ecosystems, this would also make it possible to create new types of ecosystems.
Artificial intelligence, robotics, genetics, merging of man and machine, were some of the developments we saw. The re-engineering of humans and the possible prospect of immaturity began to raise a host of new practical and ethical questions.
Image courtesy of dullhunk, licensed under Creative Commons
9/19/2012 10:44:34 AM
This post originally appeared at Solutions Online.
James Lee Witt is the former
director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the Clinton
administration (1993–2001). He is widely credited with turning FEMA from
an unsuccessful bureaucratic agency to an internationally lauded,
all-hazards disaster management agency. During his tenure, Witt oversaw
the U.S. government’s response and recovery operations for 350
disasters, including some of the most devastating disasters of all
time—the most costly flood disaster in the nation’s history, the most
costly earthquake, and a dozen damaging hurricanes. Prior to his tenure
at FEMA, he was emergency manager for State of Arkansas under Governor
Clinton. Now in private practice as chief executive officer of Witt
Associates, a public safety and crisis management consulting firm based
in Washington DC, Witt speaks to Solutions about environmental
Is the U.S. facing an increase in environmental-related
emergencies due to worsening weather and overdevelopment, or are we just
hearing about it more often in the media?
We're hearing more about it, but we are also seeing more incidences:
floods, tornados, snow storms; it has changed drastically. The eight
years I was in FEMA we had 350 presidential declarations. We've seen a
large increase in those declarations in recent years. I'm very
concerned. Last summer, we had drought in 14 states and that will affect
the meat market because farmers depend on grain. These weather-related
incidents are going to change a lot of the markets because costs will
increase. Responding to and recovering from events is costing more. We
have to look at our infrastructure, to be more resilient, because it
could be devastating when disaster strikes.
What is the worst-case scenario that the U.S. is facing from climate change?
It’s really going to affect crops and the cattle industry. The drought
affects all the farmers of soybean and corn and the lack of corn can
affect the feed and the poultry and cattle industries. It’s a domino
effect, and it will affect the entire food industry, which will affect
every consumer in the country.
On this subject of crops and cattle, one of the biggest risks is
going to be the change in behaviors and habitat of animals and insects.
This can not only impact how people make their livings, but it can
change how diseases spread, increase the chance of a large-scale
outbreak and pandemic, alter the food supplies and reproduction cycles
of animals, and undermine agricultural interests.
Should FEMA take a more forward-looking position in
preventing climate-related disasters—that is, become more involved in
cutting carbon emissions, et cetera?
I think FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of
Agriculture should be working together. Look at what we faced in the
last three years, what we may face, and what kind of strategy we can
develop to help change this and prevent tremendous losses. We also need
to reintroduce the personal responsibility component of disaster
reduction: how individuals, communities, and businesses can really make
an impact on reducing the effect of disaster related to climate.
You've been involved with the post-Katrina rebuilding efforts in New Orleans. Are there any success stories in the rebuilding?
We have been helping the State of Louisiana for the past five years in
the rebuilding. The way that New Orleans is rebuilding is very
important. What they’re doing to help reduce the effect of disaster in
the future is elevating new homes and hardening canals. The U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers really did a lot of work on that.
The rebuilding is being done to hurricane strength building codes,
which will help homes withstand strong winds and flooding. Louisiana
adopted a statewide building code for the first time after Katrina,
which ensures that reconstruction is being done in a more sustainable
way. Codes like these produce long-term mitigation benefits and reduce
the societal costs of disasters. Louisiana has also invested heavily in
building its Emergency Management capabilities, something that we have
helped them do through training of their existing staff, helping them
obtain EMAP [Emergency Management Accreditation Program] accreditation,
and building an effective public education program for mitigation and
preparedness. The State of Louisiana is now one of the most prepared and
capable states in the country and getting better all the time.
What are some actions cities and communities are taking to prevent climate related destruction?
They need to look at the risks they have in the flood-prone areas,
earthquake risk areas, and high wind and wildfire areas. It goes back to
when I was director of FEMA. We created Project Impact. We did a
partnership with over 200 communities: they would develop a strategy to
reduce their risk, and we'd provide a little seed money to the first
pilot communities. In one example, in Washington State, there was a
Project Impact and they had an earthquake and the next morning the mayor
said we had very little damage. They attributed it to Project Impact
because they had retrofitted the things they knew were at risk; they
didn't need a taxpayer bailout. In the ‘93 floods, nine states were
flooded. What we did with President Clinton and the governors was put in
place a buyout relocation program for all the homes in the floodplains.
We bought out 4,000 pieces of property and turned them into open green
space, creating jogging trails or soccer fields. In Iowa, they took that
green space and planted native flowers and grass. And they saw the
ecosystem come back in a few years. But moving people out of harm’s way
is one of the ways to stop repetitive losses when communities get
flooded over and over again.
Communities can also build to more hazard resistant standards than
the minimum requirement in order to avoid higher flood levels; they can
make a serious effort to promote water and energy conservation, both in
community facilities and in new and existing private construction; and
they can establish a rainy-day fund to help the community build reserves
and pay for mitigation investments over the long-term.
How can the U.S. help developing world countries prepare for climate change? After all, they will be worst hit.
President Clinton's global initiative has done quite a bit. They can
take the lessons learned here in the U.S. and share those with other
countries—help them help themselves. I’ve been to the Philippines,
India, Turkey, and Indonesia after the tsunami, and a lot of the shared
information and technology we know and use here would help them. We were
in Haiti [after the earthquake] three times helping them with training
programs in the worst-hit camps where people are still living in tents.
Our team, along with the New York City Fire Department trainers who
spoke the language, trained over 400 women in the camps in disaster
preparedness so that they could do some disaster reduction tasks to
reduce landslides during hurricane season. They did it and the Sean
Penn Petionville Camp proclaimed that had they not trained their
residents, there surely would have been great landslides and quite
possibly deaths. The housing they’re building is made of stronger
materials and stronger components and now is much safer than it was
Director James Lee Witt and President Clinton discuss Project Impact
initiatives at a news conference, Washington, DC, February 26, 1998. FEMA News Photo from FEMA Photo Library
, public domain.
8/2/2012 9:49:00 AM
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
When you go to
the mountains, you go to the mountains. When it’s the desert, it’s the desert.
When it’s the ocean, though, we generally say that we’re going “to the beach.”
Land is our element, not the waters of our world, and that is an unmistakable
advantage for any oil company that wants to drill in pristine waters.
Take Shell Oil.
Recently, the company’s drill ship, the fabulously named Noble Discoverer, went adrift and almost grounded in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
That should be considered an omen for a distinctly star-crossed venture to
come. Unfortunately, few of us are paying the slightest attention.
getting ready to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean,
an ecosystem staggeringly rich in life of every sort, and while it’s not yet
quite a done deal, the prospect should certainly focus our minds. But first,
it’s worth reminding ourselves of the mind-boggling richness of the life still
in our oceans.
Last month began with a once-in-a-lifetime sighting in Monterey Bay, California,
startlingly close to shore, of blue whales. Those gigantic mammals can measure
up to 100 feet, head-to-tail, and weigh nearly 200 tons—the largest animal by
weight ever to have lived on this planet. Yes, even heavier than dinosaurs. The
biggest of them, Amphicoelias fragillimus, is estimated to have
weighed 122 tons, while the largest blue whale came in at a whopping 195 tons.
The recent Monterey Bay sighting is being called “the most phenomenal showing of th[os]e endangered
mammals in recent history.” On July 5th alone, the Monterey Bay Whale Watch reported
sightings of “12 blue whales, 40 humpback whales, 400 Risso's dolphins, 300
northern right whale dolphins, 250 Pacific white-sided dolphins, and two minke
you go you just see blows"—that is, the blues spouting—Nancy Black, owner
of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel. It seems that the
abundance of krill, the tiny shrimp-like creatures that the whales feed on,
attracted about 100 of the blues. Until the beginning of the twentieth century,
they were abundant with an estimated population of more than 200,000 living in
theSouthern (or Antarctic) Ocean alone. Then they were hunted
nearly to extinction. Today, only about 10,000 of them are believed to exist.
Afternoon in the Arctic
If you follow
the pacific coastline from Monterey all the way
north, sooner or later you’ll arrive at Kivalina along the Chukchi Sea
coast in the Alaskan Arctic. Keep going along that coastline even further north
and you’ll pass by Point Hope, Point Lay, Wainright, and finally Barrow—the
northernmost town in the United States.
At Barrow, you’ll
be at the confluence of the Chukchi and Beaufort
Seas of the Arctic
Ocean. Now, head east along the Beaufort Sea
coast to Nuiqsut, and Kaktovik, both Iñupiat communities. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are remarkably rich in krill, and
home to the endangered bowhead whale. It may not be quite as large as the blue,
but head-to-tail it can still measure an impressive enough 66 feet and weigh up
to 75 tons, and it has one special attribute. It is believed to be the
longest-lived mammal on the planet.
bowheads were also abundant—an estimated population of 30,000 well into the
mid-nineteenth century. Then commercial whalers began hunting them big time,
driving them nearly extinct in less than 50 years. Today, about 10,000 bowhead
whales live in the Arctic Ocean. Blues and
bowheads could be considered the elders of the sea.
While the blues
were feeding in Monterey
Bay, Shell’s drill ships,
the Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk, were migrating north, with the hope of
drilling for oil in those very waters this summer. Unlike the jubilant
tourists, scientists, and residents of the California coast, the Iñupiat people
of the Arctic coast are now living in fear of Shell’s impending arrival; and
little wonder, as that oil giant is about to engage in what may be the most
dangerous form of drilling anywhere on Earth. After all, no one actually knows
how to clean up an oil spill that happens under the ice in the harsh conditions
of the Arctic Ocean. Despite that, the Obama
administration has been fast-tracking Shell’s dangerous drilling plan, while paying
remarkably little attention to the ecological fears it raises and the potential
devastation a major spill or spills would cause to the native peoples of the
No need to
worry, though: Shell swears it’s dealing with the possibility of such a
disaster, even to the point of bringing in dogs “to detect oil spills beneath
snow and ice.” No joke. “When it comes to drilling for oil in the harsh and
unpredictable Arctic,” the Guardianreported in March, “Shell has gone to the dogs, it seems. A
dachshund and two border collies to be specific.”
administration has been no less reassuring. There will be a genuine federal inspector on board those drill ships 24/7. And
whether you’re listening to the oil company or our government, you should just
know that it’s all a beautiful dream, nothing more. When a spill happens, and
it’s minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind’s howling at 65 miles per hour,
and sea ice is all around you and moving, the idea that a highly trained
dachshund or federal inspector will be able to do a thing is pure fantasy.
Believe me, I’ve been there under those conditions and if the worst occurs,
this won’t be a repeat of BP in the Gulf of Mexico
(bad as that was). Help will not be available.
Hand Shell this
for honesty: the company has admitted that, if a spill were to happen late in the summer
drilling season (of course it won’t!), they will simply have to leave the
spilled oil “in place” for nine months to do its damnedest. The following
summer they will theoretically deal with what’s left of the spill, and—though
they don’t say this—the possibility of a dead or dying sea.
National Environmental Policy Act requires that the government must do an Environmental
Impact Statement (EIS) if there is reason to believe that a proposed activity
will significantly affect the quality of the human environment. The Department
of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement
avoided the time consuming EIS process, however, issuing instead what is called
a “Finding of No Significant Impact.”
In late June,
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, “I believe there will not be an oil spill” from
Shell’s Arctic drilling, and proceeded full
speed ahead. Know this: in 2011 alone in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, Shell reported 63 “operational spills” due to equipment failure.
That happened in a tropical environment.
must have an approved spill-response plan before drilling can proceed. But
Shell’s government-rubber-stamped plan turns out to be full of holes, including
the claim that, should a spill occur, they will be able to recover 90 percent of all spilled oil. (In the cases of both the Exxon
Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon disasters less than 10 percent was recovered.) In fact, it’s a claim
from which the company is already backtracking. On July 10th, 10 environmental
organizations, including the Alaska Wilderness League, the Center for
Biological Diversity, and Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous
Lands (REDOIL), filed a lawsuit challenging Shell’s spill-response plans in
an attempt to stop this summer’s drilling.
Shell’s 37-year-old 294-foot barge, the Arctic Challenger, a necessity for its
clean-up plan, is still awaiting final certification from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Reporting on the failure to receive it so far, the Los Angeles Timespointed out that “[e]ngineers from the oil company say it's
no longer appropriate to require them to meet the rigorous weather standards
originally proposed.” Unfortunately, there couldn’t be anything more basic to
drilling in the Arctic than its fearsome
weather. If you can’t hack that -- and no oil company can—you shouldn’t be
sending your drill ships northward.
And a massive
spill or a series of smaller ones is hardly the only danger to one of the more
fragile environments left on the planet. The seismic testing that precedes any
drilling and the actual drilling operations bring “lots of noise” to the region. This could be very harmful to
the bowhead whales, which use sound to navigate through sea ice in darkness.
Seismic testing represents, as Peter Matthiessen wrote in 2007, following a trip we took together along the
Arctic coast of Alaska,
“the most severe acoustic insult to the marine environment I can imagine short
of naval warfare.”
Shell’s drill ships will put significant amounts of toxic substances into the
Arctic air each year, including an estimated 336 tons of nitrogen oxides and up
to 28 tons of PM2.5—fine particles that include dust, dirt, soot,
smoke, and liquid droplets. These are harmful to human health and will degrade
the Arctic’s clean atmosphere.
opposition from indigenous Iñupiat communities, the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) nonetheless approved air quality permits for the ships in January.
On June 28th, however, Shell admitted that the Noble Discoverer “cannot meet the [EPA’s]
requirements for emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonia” and asked the agency
to loosen air quality rules for Arctic drilling.
Add to this one
more thing: even before Shell’s drilling begins, or there can be any assessment
of it, the Obama administration is already planning to open up more Arctic waters to offshore drilling in the
years to come. Think of this—and of the possible large-scale, irremediable
pollution of the Arctic’s watery landscape—as
the canary in the coalmine when it comes to the oceans of the world. Especially
now, when global warming is melting northern ice and opening the way for energy
corporations backed by governments to train their sights on those waters and
their energy riches.
Just the Arctic
simplest fact: we are killing our oceans. Rapidly. Already, the massive
atmospheric accumulationof greenhouse gases from the burning
of non-Arctic fossil fuels has, scientists believe, caused a rise in sea surface temperature of 1 degree Centigrade over
the past 140 years. This may not seem impressive, but much of this increase has
occurred during the past few decades. As a result, scientists again believe,
there has been a potentially catastrophic 40 percent decline, largely since
1950, in the phytoplankton that support the whole marine food chain. Headlines
from media reports on this decline catch the grim possibilities in the
situation: “The Dead Sea,” “Are Our Oceans Dying?”
In addition, the oceans absorb about 25 percent of the
carbon dioxide (CO2) we put in the atmosphere and this has made
their waters abnormally acidic, transforming coral reefs into graveyards. Earlier this year, we learned
that “the current acidification is potentially unparalleled in at least the
last 300 million years of Earth history, and raises the possibility that we are
entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change.” This July, Jane
Lubchenco, chief of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, referred to such ocean acidification as climate change's
"equally evil twin.”
rapid melting of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is already proving catastrophic
for a host of species, including narwhals, polar bears, walruses, seals, and
sea birds. And you have undoubtedly heard about the massive
expanses of garbage, especially plastic, now clotting our oceans. Chris
Jordan’s powerful photographs of dead albatrosses at Midway Atoll,
their bellies full of plastic, catch what this can mean for marine life. And
then there’s the increasing industrial overfishing of all waters, which is
threatening to decimate fish populations globally.
And keep in
mind, that’s only so far. Drilling for what Michael Klare calls “tough oil” or “extreme energy” in a range of
perilous locations only ensures the further degradation of the oceans. In
addition to the possible opening up of the Arctic Ocean, there has been an
expansion of deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, offshore drilling in “Iceberg Alley” near Newfoundland,
deep-offshore drilling in the Brazillian “pre-salt” fields of the Atlantic
Ocean, and an increase in offshore drilling in West Africa and Asia.
As Klare writes
in his new book, The Race for What’s Left, “Drilling for oil and
natural gas in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic,
and the Pacific is likely to accelerate in the years ahead… Even the ecological
damage wreaked by the Deepwater Horizon disaster of April 2010 is not
likely to slow this drive.” He adds that “the giant oil companies will spend an
estimated $387 billion on offshore drilling operations between 2010 and
In other words,
we’re in a drill, baby, drill world, even when it comes to the most perilous of
watery environments, and if the major energy companies have their way, there
will be no turning back until the oceans are, essentially, a garbage dump.
Standing on the Seashore to Interconnectedness
Of his epic
photographic series Seascapes, artist Hiroshi Sugimoto wrote, “Can
someone today view a scene just as primitive man might have? ... Although the
land is forever changing its form, the sea, I thought, is immutable.”
All his seascapes
are black-and-white with equal part sky and sea -- and in them the oceans do
indeed look pristine and immutable. If you stand on the shore of any ocean
today, the waters may still look that way to you. Unfortunately, we now know
that those waters are increasingly anything but.
whales breaching and feeding is indeed a thrill and does breed an urge for
protection and conservation, but what we see on the surface of the planet’s
oceans is only a miniscule fraction of all their life. It is possible that we
know more about outer space than we do about what actually lives in the depths
of those waters. And that catches something of the conundrum facing us as they
are exploited and polluted past some tipping point: How do we talk about
protecting what we can’t even see?
inadequacies, faults, and failures, the conservation movement to protect public
lands in the U.S.
has been something of a triumph, providing enjoyment for us and crucially
needed habitat for many species with whom we share this Earth. Any of us,
paying little or nothing, can enjoy public lands of various sizes, shapes, and
varieties: national parks, national forests, officially designated wilderness
areas, national wildlife refuges, state parks, city parks.
The success of
land conservation, I’d suggest, was founded on one simple idea—walking. Henry
David Thoreau’s famous essay “Walking” began as a lecture he gave at the Concord Lyceum
on April 23, 1851, and was published in 1862 after his death in the Atlantic
Monthly. Environmentalist John Muir made the connection between walking
and land conservation explicit through his unforgettably lyrical prose about
hiking the mountains of California.
Edward Abbey showed us how to walk in the desert, and also gave us a recipe for
wrenching” —forms of sabotage to protest environmental destruction and in
defense of conservation that is alive and well today. There have been so many others who
have written about walking on, and in, the land: Mary Austin, Margaret Murie,
David Abram, William deBuys, Rebecca Solnit, and Terry Tempest Williams, among
others. But this simplest of free and democratic ideas that helped make public
lands familiar and inspired their conservation against industrial destruction
falls away completely when we enter the oceanic realm.
We cannot walk
in the ocean, or hike there, or camp there, or from its depths sit and
contemplate our situation and nature’s. All we can do is stand on its shores
and watch, or swim or surf its edges, or boat and float across its surface. The
oceans are not us. We lack fins, we lack gills. We are not naturally invested
in our oceans and their riches, which are such potentially lucrative assets for
those who want to profit off them -- and destroy them in the process.
for their conservation, somehow we need to learn to walk those waters. It’s not
enough to have the necessary set of grim facts, figures, and information about
how they are being endangered. We need a philosophy, an “ocean ethics” akin to
the “land ethics” that environmentalist Aldo Leopold wrote about in his seminal
book A Sand County Almanac. We don’t have it yet, but a good place to
start would be with the idea of “interconnectedness.”
It’s a very old
idea, as German poet-philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “The
truth was known already, long ago.” Rachel Carson, for instance, gave meaning
to interconnectedness on land in her famed book Silent Spring,
published in 1962, by linking the fate of bird species to the rise of
industrial toxins. She symbolically linked the potential extinction of species
like that national symbol the Bald Eagle, whose numbers had plummeted from an estimated 50,000 breeding pairs in the
lower 48 states to about 400 in the early 1960s, to our own sense of well- or
ill-being. The time has come to connect in a similar way the fate of marine
life with the rise of offshore drilling, climate change, ocean acidification,
plastic pollution, and industrial overfishing.
As I can attest
from my decade-long engagement with the far north, the Arctic
is no longer the remote place disconnected from our daily lives that we
imagine. In fact, I often think about it as the most connected place on Earth.
semipalmated sandpipers, a shorebird I can see along East Coast beaches any
fall, is the same species I saw nesting each summer along the Beaufort
Sea coast, near where Shell plans to drill. Hundreds of millions
of birds migrate to the Arctic from every
corner of the planet annually to rear their young—a celebration of
interconnectedness. But so do industrial toxins migrate to the Arctic from every region of the world, making humans and
animals in some parts of the far north among the most contaminated inhabitants of the planet—a tragedy of
there will also affect us in frightening ways. The rapid disintegration
and melting of Arctic icebergs, glaciers, and sea ice is
projected to raise global sea levels, threatening coastal cities across the
northern hemisphere. And the melting of the Arctic permafrost and of frozen areas of the seafloor is likely to release huge amounts of methane
(about 20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas) that could
prove potentially catastrophic for the planet. This is why the time has come to
focus on oceanic interconnectedness—if we hope to save our oceans and the
planet as we have known it.
For more than a
century, environmental organizations have focused on lobbying Congress as a (if
not the) primary strategy for supporting land conservation against
industrial destruction. But in the age of Citizens United, Big Oil and
King Coal will certainly outspend the lobbying efforts of these organizations
by orders of magnitude. In addition, when it comes to the oceans, Congress
plays a minor role, at least so far. Most of the crucial decisions go through
the executive branch.
harshly criticizing Obama’s offshore drilling policy, green groups have generally
appealed to his good environmental sense and instincts—a strategy that has not
worked. This attitude is changing however. In May in a letter published in the
New York Times, David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society, wrote: “Imagine: a president who ignores the advice of his
own scientists on a key environmental issue, dredging for votes in an election
year. Sound familiar? The administration is ignoring warnings from the Coast
Guard, the United States Geological Survey, the Government Accountability
Office, and hundreds of scientists. All say the [oil] industry is not prepared
to drill safely in Arctic waters. Their nightmare scenario: a BP-like blowout
in an ice-locked sea.”
been the next best option. Iñupiat activists and green groups have, in recent
years, filed numerous lawsuits meant to impede or stop Shell’s drilling plans.
Some were won, others lost, but the plans to drill remain ongoing.
wrenching is the last resort. Greenpeace has been leading the charge on that
with creativity and passion in their Save the Arctic campaign. Above all, though, if we are to
protect our oceans, the public must be engaged. If our children and
grandchildren are to experience the excitement of seeing blue whales breach and
feed, we better get busy. After all, Shell is adrift in Arctic waters. It’s
time to bring them back to shore.
Banerjee is a writer, photographer, and activist. Over the past decade he has
worked tirelessly to conserve ecoculturally significant areas of the Arctic, and to raise awareness about indigenous human
rights and climate change. He is the editor of a new book,
Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point
Stories Press) and won a 2012 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Award. His
Arctic photos can be seen this summer in three exhibitions, All Our Relations at
the 18th Biennale of Sydney, Australia, True North at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, and Looking Back at Earth at the Hood Museum of Art at
Dartmouth College. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio
interview in which Banerjee discusses the importance of the Arctic,
click here or download it to your iPod here.
TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook, and
check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
Image by Mike Baird,
licensed under Creative
4/17/2012 12:43:38 PM
Ever feel like your entire life is unsustainable? Sure, you recycle, maybe even compost or bike to work. But your student loans are out of control and you’re working overtime just to pay the bills and eat organic. Health care, vacation time, and retirement savings feel like pipe dreams. One misstep and the whole thing could unravel.
Mostly, you try to avoid asking “what if?” But you’re not the only one looking for answers. The creators of Global Teach-In believe that if we put our heads together, we can come up with a set of solutions for the economic, environmental, and energy crises. April 25th, in cities across the US (and a handful of cities worldwide), Global Teach-In will aim to inspire and empower everyday people to create change. Speakers including Bill McKibben of 350.org, Pamela Brown of the New School for Social Research, and Robert Pollin of the Political Economy Research Institute will start conversations on topics from alternative energy to corporate personhood, single payer health care to the student loan crises. For anyone waiting to get inspired and be part of the solution, it's an opportunity not to be missed.
Image: "Change" by Felix Burton, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/1/2012 1:51:56 PM
What would it take to shape a planet on which people, other living things, and the systems that support us can sustainably coexist? For a special issue, Momentum magazine invited experts from around the world to share their thoughts on how we might craft solutions to some of earth’s toughest challenges. Wayne Ellwood spoke with Solomon Prakash, the India country director of Ashoka, an international social entrepreneurship agency, on what it would take for social entrepreneurship to help pull people out of poverty.
How did you become involved in social entrepreneurship?
I started as an engineer. I worked for a small company in Bangalore for a number of years, mostly in special purpose machine design. Then in 1987 I went to Europe, where I became interested in alternative communities. I visited these communities all across Europe, and I brought that experience back to India with me. In November 1989 I started a nonprofit organization in Bangalore working with young people, connecting homeless kids to jobs and helping them get in touch with their parents.
What would it take for social entrepreneurship to make serious inroads into poverty?
If you tackle a problem like poverty head on, you need a set of people on your core team who share your vision. This can be a challenge.
The difference between a social entrepreneur and a business entrepreneur is one of commitment and vision. In a business, you might bail out once you’d made enough money. In social entrepreneurship, you believe you can solve a problem and that others will work with you to solve that problem. That core team needs to grow; otherwise, you don’t have the skills to manage the project as it grows. You need talented people who are both committed and dedicated, who are willing to live and work in isolated areas in poor conditions for very little money. Sometimes people want to work in a social enterprise because the work is different. “I may not have much money,” they say, “but my soul is satisfied and I feel happy because I’ve made a contribution.”
We also need to think creatively about funding because there are serious challenges in the kind of finances available. Increasingly, granting organizations are looking at things like returnable grants or interest-free loans to make their money last longer. Some people are talking about “social venture” funding, which is a similar model to private venture capital funding. They’re expecting returns similar to microfinancing, which was hugely profitable. But that’s not going to happen.
We don’t usually think of entrepreneurship in the context of poverty or solving social problems.
I didn’t start off as a social entrepreneur. I started off as a person who wanted to respond to a particular set of problems. But I thought and behaved like an entrepreneur: You have an idea, you put together a team and you try to raise money. You solve issues as you go along, as any entrepreneur typically would build an enterprise.
Many years later I realized that this is what social entrepreneurs do. But I didn’t start with that notion. I started as an average person saying, “OK, how do I solve this problem?” I understood the business issues, but I also understood that you are not only looking at profit, you’re also looking at other outcomes.
When I started I never thought of myself as selfless. My satisfaction from work was not money but what I love doing most. Of course it had a certain political framework, a framework of justice, a sense of what was fair, and I responded to that.
Are you optimistic about social entrepreneurs making serious inroads into poverty?
I think the next 10 years will be the decade of social entrepreneurs. I see lots of talented people who want to solve social problems making serious career changes. Some mainstream design firms have actually set up a whole branch around social innovation. Consulting companies are looking at hybrid models of social change. Increasingly, companies are saying it’s no longer possible to look at customers just as consumers. More and more people understand that social change is no longer a marginal activity. The opportunity is huge to solve problems and to come up with interesting commercial models that can be sustainable.
Published in association with
, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
Image courtesy of Solomon Prakash.
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