Every May, a force for conservation holds an awards breakfast. ForTerra fills a huge auditorium in the Seattle Convention center with a broad assortment of northwest people. There are elected officials and people who want to be elected officials. There are suited-up businessmen and women, and retired dowagers in pearls. There are teenagers and indigenous people and bike riders and housewives. They all write checks while they hear about the successes of the previous year. And there are successes. ForTerra has protected 180,000 acres of land.
One of the awards ForTerra gave this year showcased a couple who noticed a “for sale” sign on state forestland near their house. When they learned the land had been involved in a development-rights swap, they vowed to save it, and preserved 203 acres of forest. The 2013 Goldman Environmental Prizes were given out in April this year. All six went individuals for successes like this: closing two old coal plants in Chicago, restoring Mesopotamian marchlands in Iraq, protesting marble mines in West Timor by sitting on rocks and weaving, changing a whole town in Italy’s recycling rate from 11% to 82%, and winning a court ruling that requires job opportunities for people who want to recycle waste in Columbia.
None of these things were easy. But they happened.
Activists are often in danger. Popular whale defender Paul Watson is in trouble with multiple governments, including his own, and at the moment he’s staying out to sea in boats flagged from other countries. Turtle activist Jaira Mora was probably killed by poachers in Costa Rica last month. Park rangers who try to save elephants are often murdered for their trouble. At the recent Rio+20 conference, it was reported that environmental activists around the world are being killed at a rate of one per week. I suspect this is more likely to be an underestimate than an overestimate. Yet people keep committing environmentalism. They fight for the land and animals they know and love. They do this because it honors their values. Their enemies are poor people who need to eat, dangerous poachers, and gigantic multinationals. This is the bravest face of the will we’re going need.
Another way to change the world is to use capitalism and innovation to transform daily practices. Last month, at technology futurist Mark Anderson’s “Future in Review” conference in Laguna Beach, I met people from startup companies that aim to make the world better. Like direct activism, starting a company means long hours laboring over a dream with uncertain rewards. Graphene Technologies is developing processes to capture carbon at the source by turning it into carbon fiber, which is a unique and useful material. Kind of like spinning straw into gold. Electro Power Systems, SpA is working on hydrogen fuel cells for energy storage and Zinc Air is bringing more traditional but improved battery technology to bear on the grid storage problem. Ibis Networks is designed to increase building efficiency by adding remote control of outlets. HeVT is building better electric motors.
Some of these companies will thrive, and their successes matter. They – and companies like them all over the world – are building the tools we’ll need to manage our ecosystem and to live lighter on it. They’re doing this is a way that adds to overall prosperity, creates jobs, and searches – constantly – for better ways to do things.
A strong economy is fueled by the private sector. Yet there are places that only governments can go easily, if at all.
Indonesia’s president placed a two-year moratorium on new forest clearing permits in 2011, and then extended it for two more years. This matters: in 2007, Indonesia was identified as the third largest greenhouse gas producer because of extensive deforestation. Germany has become a leader in the use of renewable energy sources. In the US, California regularly passes more restrictive environmental laws than the federal government, including a comprehensive carbon cap and trade program.
Making changes as a government can be as hard as the work of the citizens and NGO’s inciting the change. Big lobbying money and corporate money and active disinformation campaigns work against progress. By definition, most actions that protect the planet are born from long-term thinking, but politicians are always aware of the next election.
Getting to a sustainable world is an uphill battle. But there are a lot of examples of sheer gut-it-out willpower making a difference. Way back in chapter 4, I mentioned that we would need data, decision-making frameworks, and willpower to create a sustainable future. We will need to be as successful as the couple who noticed the “for sale” sign and as innovative as Graphene Technologies and as determined as the President of Indonesia.
In the next entry, I’ll talk about some ideas for creating sustainable ways to manage the common places we all share.
As always, links in case you want to do your own research: