Director’s Corner: Healing the Heart of Democracy

“The human heart is the first home of democracy.  It is where we embrace our questions.  Can we be equitable? Can we be generous?  Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions?  And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?” – Terry Tempest Williams

In 2015 the nations of the world committed to achieving 17 Sustainable Development Goals at every scale of society, from local communities to international agreements and cooperation.  Goal 16 is Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions.

As I think of the current status of peace, justice, and strong institutions around the world and here in the United States, I find them worse in 2020 than they were in 2015, and they were not great then.

Climate change, political instability, racial and economic injustice, and the COVID-19 pandemic are some of the factors creating significant upheaval in society.

Democracy around the world and here at home is in need of our tender, careful attention.  The title of this column is the title of Parker Palmer’s 2011 book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, and this is what his book is about. Here’s a PBS video broadcast of Palmer from 2015, giving an address on the ideas in the book.

Like Terry Tempest Williams, Palmer emphasizes the human heart as the “first home of democracy.”  He defines the heart as “…intellect, intuition, feeling, imagination, will – which taken together, constitute the core of self-hood called the human heart.”

Palmer writes that the human heart is capable of great cruelty, but it is also capable of generosity, kindness, compassion, and humanity, each case determined by which one of two ways our hearts have been broken.

One way to suffer heartbreak in times of loss, betrayal, injustice, and other painful experiences is for the heart to break apart and shatter.  It becomes cold, hard, brittle. Resentment breeds, horizons shrink, experiences narrow, and the other becomes an enemy.

Another way for a heart to break, according to Palmer, is to break open, to become more “grateful, alive, and loving” for what it has suffered.  The heart expands in service to others. He describes this heart as “an alchemical retort that can transform dross into gold.”

Palmer writes that when hearts break apart, “…fearmongers whip up what Henry Giroux has called a ‘culture of cruelty,’ working nonstop ‘to undo democratic values, compassion and any viable notion of justice and its accompanying social relations.’”  Ignited this way, these hearts lose the capacity to embrace the mind- and heart-set, which nurtures the skills of citizenship, the capacity to listen and speak with openness and respect across differences to achieve a shared outcome, a common future.

Palmer calls conflict over ideas, “an engine of a better social order.” He explains that this kind of conflict is designed into our democratic system, and the unwillingness or inability to embrace conflict over ideas is extremely dangerous to the American experiment in democracy.

But that is not the kind of conflict we are experiencing in the United States today.  American journalist and commentator Bill Moyers assessed our circumstances this way: “We have fallen under the spell of money, faction, and fear, and the great American experience in creating a different future together has been subjugated to individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power….”

The frustrations many Americans feel toward government is understandable.  For most Americans, government no longer works for them, and research bears this out. This article in Journalist’s Resource at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy provides a link to a 2014 study published in Perspective on Politics by researchers Marin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern.  The authors conclude their study this way: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence (emphasis added).”

As a result, many Americans have given up on government and disengaged from civic life.

This saddens and angers me, especially when I think about our power and potential as citizens to turn things around once we realize our agency and cultivate the skills of citizenship to deploy it.  Disengagement is exactly the wrong thing to do! Only by exercising our rights of citizenship will we grow into the capacity to regain our democracy for ourselves as one people.

Attacks on government anger me when I think about the fact that creating this form of government was what this nation’s founders spent all their time doing.  Yes, what they created was, in practice, exclusionary and discriminatory, but the institutions and systems they created maintain their capacity and promise for “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln described it.

Another danger to our democracy is the incessant elevation of individual freedom as the be-all and end-all of what it means to be an American.  In a democracy, individual freedoms dwell within our shared commitment to the common good.  Our responsibilities and obligations to each other, the world around us, and future generations are the context within which individual freedoms can thrive; anything less results in the oppression of the many.

Speaking specifically about the prevalence of individualism, Palmer made this sobering observation: “The greater our tendency toward individualism, the weaker our communal fabric; the weaker our communal fabric, the more vulnerable we are to despotic power.”

Statue of Responsibility Sketch
Credit: statueofresponsibility.org

In his classic work Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote, “Freedom is only part of the story and half the truth…. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplanted by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”  A group of citizens has acted on Frankl’s vision. That statue has been designed and is expected to open to the public on the West Coast in 2023.

Palmer explains why some hearts break open to become supple and strong to embrace individual responsibility for our shared wellbeing.  For some, this outcome is the result of a spiritual practice. For others, “it is because life takes them to places where it is either ‘do or die.’”

Parker goes on to say: “We are now at such a place as a nation: we must restore the wholeness of our civic community or watch democracy wither…. If we cannot or will not open our hearts to each other, powers that diminish democracy will rush into the void created by the collapse of ‘We the People.’ But in the heart’s alchemy that community can be restored.”

That was certainly the choice for Viktor Frankl, who, while suffering the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust in concentration camps, opened his heart to others by comforting and reassuring them despite his own deprivations and suffering.  He spent the rest of his life helping others develop meaningful lives, showing how “the heart’s alchemy” restores individuals and communities.

As always, the future is up to us.  Frankel’s choice, Palmer’s choice, is ours: hearts broken apart, or hearts broken open?  Are we being manipulated by those Palmer calls “the hucksters of hate,” or led by “the better angels of our nature?”

As far as I am concerned, Palmer makes it clear:  we only have one choice. “Restore the heart to its rightful role as the integral core of our human capacities, and it gives us a place of power in which to stand, along with the kind of knowledge we need to rebuild democracy’s infrastructure from the inside out.”

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Director’s Corner: Hunger – There is No Excuse

The international Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were created by the nations of the world under the auspices of the United Nations. Tapping experts across the globe on a range of disciplines, seventeen goals were established with a deadline of 2030 for achieving each goal. The seventeen goal topics were identified as the essential priorities for meeting the needs of all people across the world.

Each goal is intended to be addressed at every scale, from local communities to planet-wide collaborations.

Goal 2 is Zero Hunger: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” So this goal is about a lot more than eliminating hunger. It is as much about the way we achieve that goal if we are committed to achieving sustainability: eliminating food waste and supporting local farmers; providing food for all in a way that restores rather than further degrades soils, air, water, landscapes, and the climate while providing for the health, safety, and financial return of farmworkers; and treating animals raised for food humanely, as the sentient (“finely sensitive in perception or feeling” – Merriam-Webster) beings that they are.

Graphic depicting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger.
The Office of Sustainability’s Zero Hunger graphic.

How is the world doing in making progress toward this goal? Here is the U.N.’s current assessment:

The world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030. If recent trends continue, the number of people affected by hunger would surpass 840 million by 2030.

After decades of steady decline, the number of people who suffer from hunger – as measured by the prevalence of undernourishment – began to slowly increase again in 2015. Current estimates show that nearly 690 million people are hungry, or 8.9 percent of the world population – up by 10 million people in one year and by nearly 60 million in five years.

According to the World Food Programme, 135 million suffer from acute hunger largely due to man-made conflicts, climate change, and economic downturns. The COVID-19 pandemic could now double that number, putting an additional 130 million people at risk of suffering acute hunger by the end of 2020.

With more than a quarter of a billion people potentially at the brink of starvation, swift action needs to be taken to provide food and humanitarian relief to the most at-risk regions.

At the same time, a profound change of the global food and agriculture system is needed if we are to nourish the more than 690 million people who are hungry today – and the additional 2 billion people the world will have by 2050. Increasing agricultural productivity and sustainable food production are crucial to help alleviate the perils of hunger.

In the U.S. 40 million Americans face hunger on a daily basis. Here in Alabama, according to the Alabama Food Bank Association, nearly 20% of our population is food insecure, more than 900,000 people. In October 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic made matters worse, an Alabama Political Reporter article stated that nearly one-third of children living in rural Alabama suffer food insecurity, which is the lack of sufficient household funds to provide reliable and ongoing supplies of nutritious food for a family. One in four children in Alabama struggles with hunger. A significant percentage of food insecure and hungry children come from minority communities.

These conditions are a moral failure on the part of society in the United States and around the world. There is no reason that hunger or food insecurity should exist. It is inexcusable because there is more than enough food to feed everyone.

Then what’s the problem? There are numerous factors. For one thing, a shocking amount of food is wasted. Globally, at least one-third of all food produced goes to waste. In the United States, it’s 40%.

The food sharing app OLIO exists to connect people with each other and local businesses so that surplus food can be shared and not wasted. OLIO describes food waste as a chronic market failure: “Between 33-50% of all food produced globally is never eaten, and the value of this wasted food is worth over $1 trillion. To put that in perspective, in the USA food waste represents 1.3% of the total GDP. Food waste is a massive market inefficiency, the kind of which does not persist in other industries.”

Furthermore, “All the world’s nearly one billion hungry people could be fed on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK, and Europe.”

According to research cited in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, we already grow enough food for 10 billion people.

Wow!

So what is being done and what can we do to resolve this market and moral failing?

That’s a big question and in the interest of space and the reader’s patience, I will be brief and stay close to home.

Auburn University is a global leader in higher education efforts toward a food-secure world. The Hunger Solutions Institute (HSI) in the College of Human Sciences is in many ways spearheading these efforts. Check out HSI to learn about all their innovative and impactful programming. HSI’s website includes a page on Campus and Community Resources for access to food which includes a Share Meals food sharing app.

The Auburn University Campus Kitchens Project is one of the most outstanding and effective student organizations on campus. These students gather unused food from on campus and local restaurants and repackage it into individual meals. These students successfully provide thousands of meals every year to individuals on campus and from Tuskegee to Opelika.

A group of volunteers for the Campus Kitchens Project
A group of volunteers working for the Campus Kitchens Project

The Food Bank of East Alabama “ works to create a safety net of community partners, programs, and direct services to meet the needs of our neighbors who struggle with hunger across our seven-county service area.” The Food Bank is always in need of donations of time and money to meet the needs of the communities it serves, and those needs have only increased because of the coronavirus.

Our individual actions in the community are very important, however, they are not enough to create food security for all that is sustainable over the long term. A humane and morally driven transformation of the food system is necessary. That requires societal commitments, including government actions and policy and collaboration at national and international scales, to create needed change.

The book Food Security, Nutrition, and Sustainability, edited by Geoffrey Lawrence, Kirsten Lyons, and Tabatha Wallington, tapped 37 international scholars whose essays address many of the topics related to sustainable food security and nutrition over the long term. Among their concluding remarks:

“Sustainability has to be the basis on which the world produces food and ensures healthy consumption for all (UNEP 2009). Along with other voices, as many of the contributors to this book argue, food security can only be achieved if food systems become sustainable.”

And the book’s final words: “The discourse about food security symbolizes the need to integrate nutrition, environmental sustainability, and social justice. No other food-policy thinking passes the laugh test.”

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DIRECTOR’S CORNER: THE WELLBEING OF EACH IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF ALL

“The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wellbeing is one of the system conditions of a sustainable world, one of the four points of the Sustainability Compass.

Graphic of the Sustainability Compass
The Sustainability Compass

What is wellbeing anyway? Merriam-Webster defines wellbeing as “the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous.”

The Gallup organization conducted a landmark study of people in more than 150 countries and identified five interdependent elements of wellbeing universally shared throughout humanity, and then reported them in the book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, by Tom Rath and Jim Harter. The Five Essential Elements:

• Career Wellbeing
• Social Wellbeing
• Financial Wellbeing
• Physical Wellbeing
• Community Wellbeing

Gallup maintains a Wellbeing Index to monitor and report the status of wellbeing in individuals and communities in the United States and around the world.

Similarly, the Auburn University Office of Health Promotion and Wellness Services emphasizes Nine Dimensions of Wellness:

• Physical Wellness
• Emotional Wellness
• Intellectual Wellness
• Spiritual Wellness
• Social Wellness
• Environment Wellness
• Occupational Wellness
• Financial Wellness
• Cultural Wellness

Image of the icons for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals
The Sustainable Development Goals address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.

During the decade of the 2010s, the nations of the world joined together to create seventeen global goals “to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” Every one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), relate to human wellbeing, and Goal 3 targets wellbeing specifically: “Good Health and Wellbeing: Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.”

It is obvious from these elements, dimensions, and goals that the wellbeing of each is the responsibility of all. Our life satisfaction is inextricably linked to others and dependent on our relationships with others. All others. None of us can achieve wellbeing on our own yet all of us can contribute to the wellbeing of ourselves and others.

Our shared responsibility to generate wellbeing for all is an important point right now given the drumbeat of toxicity that has come to dominate our national discourse and enflame uncivil, actively hostile words and actions within the United States and between the United States and others around the world, a negative energy that is shredding the fabric of our society.

Given this state of affairs, some questions come to mind. What is my responsibility to others? What are my intentions? What do I hope to achieve? Is life a zero-sum game? If I see the pie of wellbeing as limited (which it is not) do I take all I can get and leave whatever scraps remain to be fought over by the rest? How do I perceive others, especially those that seem different from me? Are they less worthy than me of a decent life? Are they enemies to be crushed?

Not contributing to the toxicity of the discourse is not enough.

The last essay written by the great moral leader and Congressman John Lewis was published in the New York Times on August 30, 2020, the day of his funeral. He titled it “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.” In that column he reminds us that Dr. King “…said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something.”

If the endpoint is not, as Dr. King says, “reconciliation…redemption…the Beloved Community” we are doomed to a cycle of misery, oppression, injustice, inequality, prejudice, antagonism, racism, bitterness, illness, and death. If we sow hatred and division, that is what we reap. There are no winners in that cycle. Everyone loses.

What’s frustrating is that evidence tells me that, almost without exception, we humans desire wellbeing for ourselves and it is in our nature to desire for and contribute to the wellbeing of others. Plenty of examples come to mind if we think about it. As Americans, we are constitutionally committed to shared meaning, shared effort, shared prosperity. Commitment to the general welfare is found among our most cherished aspirations and in our founding documents.

I am always inspired when I think about how the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution bookend this very point.

The very last statement in the Declaration of Independence, right before John Hancock wrote his signature large enough for King George to read it without his spectacles, is this: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

The Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquilty, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

If that’s not enough, the de facto national motto of the United States is E Pluribus Unum, which was originally intended to convey the 13 colonies joining together as states within a national union, and more recently has come to mean “out of many people, one American people.”

The intentions wrought out of the struggle for freedom in the late 1700s continue to inspire Americans and people all over the world. For these words to be more than sentiments each generation must embrace them anew, and “pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” so that we may progress along the path toward “a more perfect Union…Justice…domestic Tranquilty…the common defense… the general Welfare, and secur[ing] the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity….”

We are fully capable of achieving the wellbeing for all that arises within the Beloved Community that these commitments represent, if we accept our shared responsibilities and opportunities, if we collectively decide that this remains a goal worth pursuing.

Congressman John LewisThe official photo of Congressman John Lewis from his website whose content constitutes a work of the Federal government under sections 105 and 403 of title 17 of the U.S. Code.
Congressman John Lewis gets the last word. From his essay:

“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.”

“Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

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Director’s Corner: Creating a New Normal: Where Do We Go From Here?

“…a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”

~Albert Einstein, New York Times, May 25, 1946

Times of disturbance and upheaval are always times of change. Societal structures loosen, sometimes fracture, and fundamental assumptions about the world are shaken. As societies resettle from crises they resettle differently, either a little differently or significantly so.

No one would have wished for the global upheaval caused by the coronavirus and COVID-19. The ongoing loss of life, the emotional, financial, and societal toll, and the uncertainty we face, are all overwhelming.

But this terrible disturbance creates an opportunity. Octogenarian journalist and observer of society Llewellyn King said recently that “Disturbance and change open the door for great creativity. Major disruptions yield new beginnings.”

What will our new beginnings look like?

Of course, the immediate task is to suppress the spread of the virus and to develop a vaccine. As we’ve all heard so often, when we develop sufficient supplies of reliable tests and test people regularly we will be able to identify and isolate those infected, and quarantine those with whom infected individuals have come in contact. Then the rest of us can move about more freely while we await a proven vaccine.

But then what? Are we open to “a new type of thinking” for figuring out where we go from here?

What Einstein wrote in 1946 remains true today. If we hope to survive and thrive it is “essential” that we learn to think differently.

What does it take to do that and what does it look like?

Before anything else I think it requires the willingness to think differently. Karen Armstrong writes “One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of.”

Recently I read Factfulness, by Hans Rosling. Through humor and copious credible data, he reveals that most people, including “experts,” have the facts wrong when it comes to conditions and trends and the state of the world. To remedy this gap between perceptions and real-world conditions, he recommends humility and curiosity.

He writes “Being humble, here, means being aware of how difficult your instincts can make it to get the facts right…. Being curious means being open to new information and actively seeking it out.”

So first, an open, humble, curious mind is a precondition to new types of thinking.

It’s also helpful to distinguish between ideas and ideologies as mental frameworks for thinking about things. Paul Hawken wrote about the difference in Blessed Unrest: “There is a vast difference between the two; ideas question and liberate, while ideologies justify and dictate…. Ideologies exclude openness, diversity, resiliency, and multiplicity, the very qualities that nourish life in any system, be it ecosystem, immune system, or social system…. Ideas are living things; they can be changed and adapted, and can grow. Ideas do not belong to anyone, and require no approval.”

A great resource for the kind of thinking needed is Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline, about five disciplines practiced by learning leaders and organizations that learn how to respond productively to changing conditions. The five disciplines include Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision, Team Learning, and Systems Thinking. All are immensely helpful tools for thought and action. In particular, the practice of Personal Mastery and Mental Models require regular examination of our assumptions about the world, and the effort to see current reality more clearly.

The Stockdale Paradox is a specific, disciplined commitment to face current reality. According to Joel Makower in a recent column in GreenBiz, this mindset is important if we are to learn from the current crisis. Jim Collins in his book Good to Great found that the Stockdale Paradox is a habit of thought practiced by effective organizational leaders and change agents. The concept is named after Admiral James Stockdale who summarized it this way: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

We have to know where we are and how we got there if we hope to move to where we want to be.

United States Government Seal
Image from the United States Government

When I think about “the most brutal facts of current reality” as they relate to the coronavirus I think of two things: the unintended consequences of humanity’s unquestioned pursuit of consumption and economic growth as a worthwhile goal, and the many failings of American society epitomized by how distant our policies, political discourse, and many of our behaviors are from the patriotic commitment in our de facto national motto, E pluribus unum: “out of many, one.”

To have a new beginning ripe with creativity requires leaving old assumptions and patterns of thought behind. It requires curiosity and humility, openness to new ideas. It requires rejecting the simplistic and confining, false comfort of narrow ideologies.

One of the powers of democracy is that citizens can convene and work across differences to co-create a future that all desire. This happens on a small scale more than we realize. Democratic structures exist to facilitate this. It requires that citizens use the skills of citizenship in a civic engagement process if the effort is going to result in anything worthwhile. It requires listening to each other, openly and sincerely, and talking with rather than at each other.

It requires having faith in each other and acknowledging our shared values.

It requires the ethic of E pluribus unum.

There is no going back to the way things were. There is only going forward. It makes no sense to perpetuate what has become outmoded or counterproductive.

If we will bring humility, curiosity, openness to possibility, and a recognition that we are all in this together to the effort of figuring out what’s next, I have great faith in the future.

I agree with Donella Meadows: “We humans are smart enough to have created complex systems and amazing productivity; surely we are also smart enough to make sure that everyone shares our bounty, and surely we are smart enough to sustainably steward the natural world upon which we all depend.”

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At the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day It’s Lessons Have Yet to be Learned.

“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants—and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”  ~David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, in the New York Times January 28, 2020

Give Earth a Chance ButtonThe first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was organized to call attention to and stop the same kinds of thinking and behaviors that led to the coronavirus pandemic.

For all the positive outcomes of Earth Day 1970 and subsequent Earth Days, as a society we still behave as if people are separate from and above the natural world, as if nature is an unlimited source of resources that are ours for the taking, as if taking those resources without regard for ecosystem functioning or the laws and limits of nature have no consequences, and as if nature is an infinite sink to absorb whatever and however much waste we produce.

Right now we are focused on what individuals, organizations, communities, and government should be doing to respond to this crisis – which is what we need to do – but at some point, we have to confront the fact: our worldviews and behaviors have caused every major global crisis we face including this one.

The most dangerous and wrong worldview of all is human separateness from the rest of the living planet.

The message in 1970 (and well before) is the message now: What we do to the natural world we do to ourselves. Everything is connected.

Early in the 20th Century, John Muir poetically observed: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” He intuited the interconnection and interdependence of everything.

Quantum physics subsequently proved Muir to be right. Physicist Fritjof Capra: “Ultimately, as quantum physics showed so dramatically, there are not parts at all. What we call a part is merely a pattern in an inseparable web of relationships.”

More than ten years ago, Peter Senge warned that the consequences of not understanding our interdependence are becoming ever more apparent and are growing exponentially as human population has exploded, as our impact on the planet has grown to be all-pervasive (thus the new geological epoch, the Anthropocene) and caused more and more harm, and as our economic, technological, and social systems have become increasingly interconnected. Unfortunately, Senge observed, our understanding of the interdependence of life has not grown very much. The coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis is one of the ways we are suffering as a result.

The first Earth Day was the brainchild of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat who felt that the environment needed political standing in Congress if the public interest was to be fairly represented. Senator Nelson recruited Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey from California to the cause, and hired Denis Hayes, a Harvard Law School student, to be the national coordinator.

Earth Day 1970 was the largest demonstration in American history. 20 million people participated. Well over a thousand colleges and universities held teach-ins and other events as did 10,000 K-12 schools.

Several triggers representing broader issues lit the fuse of the Earth Day movement. Among them: The publication of Silent Spring in 1962, a devastating indictment of the profligate, irresponsible use of poisons like DDT to manage agricultural and neighborhood pests; in January 1969 the Santa Barbara drilling rig blowout and oil spill dumped 3 million gallons of crude into the waters of coastal California, the largest spill in history until the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989; the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire in June of 1969, as it had for decades. Air quality in cities like Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Birmingham were every bit as bad as the air in Beijing today.

As surprising as it might seem today, Earth Day was a bipartisan event. The New York Times on April 23, 1970, reported: “Conservatives were for it. Liberals were for it. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents were for it. So were the ins, the outs, the Executive and Legislative branches of government.”

In the three years following Earth Day 1970, Congress passed the most consequential legislation ever to protect the natural world and public health: the Clean Air Act (which, in spite of anguished cries from industry, passed the Senate unanimously and the House by a voice vote), the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and several other laws that have fundamentally altered life for the better. These photos are just two examples of the difference these laws have made:

Air Quality in Los Angeles
Air quality in Los Angeles. Photos: Herald-Examiner Collection, Gary Leonard

 

Cuyahoga River 1952
Cuyahoga River, Cleveland, 1952. Photo: Cleveland State Univ. Library
Cuyahoga River 2019
Cuyahoga River, Cleveland, 2019. Photo: sharetheriver.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The dramatic differences in these photos are explained by concentrated political action by citizens that forced government to act on behalf of the public interest. That forcing came when congressmen standing in the way lost their jobs.

Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes made this point in 2010 on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day while addressing climate change. “…winning passage of meaningful legislation on climate change requires more than slogans and green talk — it demands intense, determined political action…. Politicians who try to ignore climate disruption need to start losing their jobs next November.” Read Hayes’ entire post including a brief description of targeting a “Dirty Dozen” congressmen in 1970 (yes, they were all men) who stood in the way of environmental protections.

In the middle of the coronavirus crisis, we should pay close attention to how our elected representatives act to resolve this crisis, whose interests are being served, and what they do going forward to change the way things are done so that the next virus is less likely. Is the light dawning that we are interconnected and interdependent and must make fundamental changes to the way we behave toward each other and the natural world?

If not, as citizens who exercise the right to vote we have the opportunity – and the need – to create the same kind of change that citizens created in the early 1970s. The stakes are high.

As David Quammen put it in his January 2020 New York Times Opinion piece:

So when you’re done worrying about this outbreak, worry about the next one. Or do something about the current circumstances. Current circumstances include a perilous trade in wildlife for food, with supply chains stretching through Asia, Africa and to a lesser extent, the United States and elsewhere…. Current circumstances also include bureaucrats who lie and conceal bad news, and elected officials who brag to the crowd about cutting forests to create jobs in the timber industry and agriculture or about cutting budgets for public health and research. The distance from Wuhan or the Amazon to Paris, Toronto or Washington is short for some viruses, measured in hours, given how well they can ride within airplane passengers. And if you think funding pandemic preparedness is expensive, wait until you see the final cost of nCoV-2019.

We are faced with two mortal challenges, in the short term and the long term. Short term: We must do everything we can, with intelligence, calm and a full commitment of resources, to contain and extinguish this nCoV-2019 outbreak before it becomes, as it could, a devastating global pandemic (just three months later it’s too late for that now – ed.). Long term: We must remember when the dust settles, that nCoV-2019 was not a novel event or a misfortune that befell us. It was — it is — part of a pattern of choices that we humans are making.

Pogo Poster- We have met the enemy and he is us
This Pogo cartoon by Walt Kelly became an iconic image of the first Earth Day.

This is the same point Pogo made fifty years ago. This Pogo cartoon by Walt Kelly became an iconic image of the first Earth Day. It’s message? To paraphrase, ‘We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.’

Seeing connections and acting accordingly. This is the most powerful lever we have to change the course of history for the better.

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Director’s Corner: Eating as if Food is the Point

“What we discovered in Italy was that if an establishment serves food, then food is the point.” (original italicized). Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

In her marvelous book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver describes her food experiences during a trip to Italy.  She was amazed that wherever she and her husband ate, a museum cafeteria, a simple diner, or a pizzeria, the food was always wonderful, intentionally prepared with care to make “food the point.”

She contrasts that with eating in America, where at fast-food restaurants “‘fast’ is the point”, at sports bars sports is the point, and at airport restaurants “the premise is ‘captive starving audience.’”  All of which equals mediocre food at best.

That got me thinking about habitually mindless or careless eating to indiscriminately silence hunger, to self-medicate during times of stress, or out of boredom; to eating distracted, while on our phones, while watching tv, while sitting at our desks.

That got me thinking about the pace of ‘life’ and how inattentive we can be every day to the small but meaningful pleasures as we rush about from one thing to the next.

I think because we are so distracted and rushed, we find ourselves tolerating a lot of things that, when we stop to think about them, are intolerable — politically, socially, environmentally, economically.  But for now, I’ll stick with food.

In his enlightening book Real Food, Fake Food, food and travel columnist Larry Olmsted writes about food fraud, how much of what we think we are eating is something else, and invariably something less.

For example, parmesan cheese.  The real deal is crafted in Parma, Italy and is called Parmigiano-Reggiano.  By law, it must contain only three ingredients: fresh (out of a cow less than 18 hours) drug-free milk, salt, and rennet.   The stuff in the green cardboard tube that I grew up eating is called parmesan and is made of “milk of unknown origin and purity, cellulose powder (wood pulp! ed.), potassium sorbate, and cheese cultures.”

Because “parmesan is the direct English translation of Parmigiano-Reggiano” they should be the same thing when clearly they are not.

There are so many examples of fake foods in his book: seafood, beef, oils, cheeses, honey (the third-most faked food), coffee, teas, wine, champagne, scotch, fruit juices, maple syrup, and more.  Some of the fakes are not just cheap and deceitful but downright dangerous.  According to Olmsted, improperly farmed salmon and shrimp imported from other countries can be laden with PCBs, dioxins, and other toxic chemicals.

Olmstead’s biggest criticisms are directed at the Food and Drug Administration, whose mission is “protecting and promoting your health.”  Read his book and you will see just how little oversight there is, how much influence industry has, and therefore how much fraud there is.

The good news is there are simple and, in many cases, inexpensive ways to make food the point and avoid these problems that also get at more mindful and pleasurable living.  Real Food, Fake Food is full of recommendations, like buying local for example.

And rather than grabbing a frozen pizza at the store, he encourages us to slow down, take a few extra minutes, and make a pizza that is far more nutritious and enjoyable.  He gives us some good reasons for doing this besides making food the point of eating.

Next time you are at a grocery store, or perhaps go into your freezer, check out the ingredients in a frozen pizza.  One brand Olmstead checked had 52 ingredients, many of which are not a good idea to eat.  Is one of the ingredients butylated hydroxytoluene?  It is “banned in England and the FDA has said (for years) ‘should’ be investigated owing to the possibility of turning other ingredients toxic or cancer-causing.”  How about the petroleum-derived additive butylated hydroxyanisole, is that an ingredient too?  I don’t know about you but I don’t want anything petroleum-based in my pizza or any other food for that matter.

Is it a pepperoni pizza?  Researching the book Olmsted learned that the FDA has a lower grade of pork than “acceptable.”  It’s the grade used by processed food producers.  Great.

Instead, Olmsted recommends making your own pizza.  Here’s how he does it:

  • Freshly made dough at a local market, the canvas upon which to create a culinary masterpiece
  • If appropriate fresh, local tomatoes are unavailable, a can of high-quality tomatoes; he uses Pomi, an Italian brand that is 100% Italian tomatoes and nothing else
  • Fresh mozzarella cheese
  • For pepperoni, he recommends buying from Applegate, available nationally
  • Add whatever fresh veggies or anything else you want
  • Grate some fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano, drizzle some high quality balsamic, and add a few drops of olive oil (see his recommendations for these)
  • Bottom line: use real food, locally produced as much as possible.

The slower pace of preparing and cooking a pizza this way requires attention and intention.  It creates a more relaxed mental and emotional state in which to enjoy the work of culinary art just created and pulled out of the oven or off the grill.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle tells the story of Barbara Kingsolver and her family committing to living and eating like this for a year, respecting the natural processes of food production, preparation, and consumption.  The values that led them to make this effort strengthened and became more intentionally infused in every area of their lives to greater, more rewarding effect than they ever expected or considered.

In the effort to “make food the point,” wherever we fall on the scale between making a simple homemade pizza with fresh ingredients and moving to a farm to live off whatever can be produced locally for a year,  being more intentional about what we eat, where it comes from, and how it is produced is guaranteed to have salutary effects on our physiology and our psyche, while making the world a better, more enjoyable place for the effort.

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Director’s Corner: Taking the Measure of Our Humanity in the 21st Century

Sustainability Compass Icon
The Sustainability Compass

“I believe in one thing—that only a life lived for others is a life worth living.”  Albert Einstein, 1948

 

As I look around at the ever-growing climate crisis and the shocking lack of global action, the fracturing of democracies and toxicity of public discourse, constant war, and the widening gap between the very wealthy and everyone else and especially the desperately poor, several questions occur to me.

What does it mean to be a human being twenty years into the 21st century?  What are our individual and collective behaviors revealing about ourselves?  As a species are we advancing or regressing? How far removed are we from the coarseness and cruelty of our ancestors near and far?  How far have we advanced toward a higher refinement of what it means to be human, toward the nobility of kindness, compassion, generosity of spirit, appreciating our interdependence with each other, and applying our enormous mental, emotional, and spiritual capacities for the betterment of life on Earth?

What does the exercise of common humanity look like in the year 2020?  What are our responsibilities to the fabric of humanity and all life on Earth?

These are sobering times that require sober reflection on questions like these; questions about what we truly value and what we identify ourselves to be. Do we shrug our shoulders and say “thus it has always been” or are humans more like a Chesapeake Bay blue crab molting out of its shell to make room for new growth, habitually throwing off the confining old and emerging as something new, a more transparent expression of our “better angels” within?

The sustainability movement itself germinated and continues to grow from fundamental human values that are held in common among all peoples and cultures.  That’s why the movement is committed to creating a safe and just place for all humanity within the life-giving laws and limits of our planet.

Throughout my career I have been privileged to work with people in many aspects of all three sectors of society – government, business, and civil society – as well as in my personal life with friends and loved ones, who exemplify values in action on behalf of a better world.

I think the commonly held values that underlie the sustainability movement are reflected in four questions that, one way or another, we were all taught to ask ourselves when we were children.

The first question is: How am I showing up today?  Am I living carelessly or carefully? Am I paying close attention to living faithfully to the things I hold most dear?  Does it show in the way I present and express myself every day?  Robert K. Greenleaf, who defined the concept of Servant Leadership, reminds us that ‘the quality of our inner life is manifested outwardly.’  Perhaps the single biggest thing we can do to contribute to a just, thriving, sustainable world is to cultivate the quality of our inner life so that what is manifest outwardly reflects the very best of who we are and what it means to be human.

The second question: What is my impact on others? What am I seeing and bringing out in others?  Trappist monk Thomas Merton observed that “There is in all visible things…a hidden wholeness.”  Am I perceiving and speaking to the wholeness within others?  Do they feel seen and heard?  Do they leave an interaction with me better or worse for the experience?   These every day, common interactions with others have enormous cumulative effects.  We are not responsible for how our expression of humanity is received, only for what our expression of humanity is.

The third question: How am I treating the world around me?  Do I appreciate how utterly interdependent I am with all life on Earth and how completely reliant I am on healthy, functioning planetary systems?  Do I understand how precious life on Earth is?  If so, do I act like it, with intention, doing my best to ensure that my impact on the world is regenerative and restorative?

I guarantee that our impact on the world around us will improve, as will our mental and emotional wellbeing, if we invest time regularly – even as little as twenty minutes – in nature.    Humans have a natural affinity for life, for all life on Earth.  Pulitzer prize-winning Harvard biologist and Alabama native E.O. Wilson uses the term “biophilia” to describe this connection. He wrote a book by that name and as it says on the book cover, “Wilson argues that our natural affinity for life – biophilia—is the very essence of our humanity and binds us to all other living species.”  What does that look like in practice?  I know the results of these experiences are calming, relaxing, and leave me with a better perspective on what matters.

The fourth question: What am I leaving for those who come after me?  It infuriates me every time I hear about another assault on remaining old-growth forests, like the current assault on the Tongass in Alaska, the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the world; or the wanton and willful destruction of the Amazon that is underway; or the destruction of water and air quality programs and policies that is reversing decades of already inadequate protections; or the mass extinction of species human activity is causing.  How much of what is left of the natural world are we going to restore, protect, and save for future generations?  “None of it” is the answer that comes most immediately to mind based on the evidence.

What am I leaving when it comes to human relations?  I am dismayed by the legacy of prejudice, oppression, and demonizing the other that we perpetuate and leave for those who come after us, a legacy that is tolerated and even being amplified today.  No one is born with hatred or prejudice.  It is either taught or learned through suffering caused by others.

More immediately, what are we leaving and providing for the next generation that is already here, the children?  The February 3, 2020 issue of TIME includes an essay by Jeff Madrick, author of Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Child Poverty.  The essay opens this way: “Nearly 1 in 5 American children is officially poor. That’s roughly 15 million kids. But the number living with a significant deprivation–insufficient food, seriously overcrowded housing or a lack of access to medical care due to cost–is actually much higher. According to the latest studies, it’s more like 1 in 3. Why do we tolerate this?”

John Woolman, A Quaker who lived in colonial times, models for us what is possible when one person lives and acts consistent with their values.  Woolman spent more than twenty years traveling the colonies asking fellow Quakers how, given the tenant of the Christian faith that acknowledges the divine within each individual, they could enslave other human beings.  One of the questions he asked was ‘Do you think it is right to pass along the burden of this sin to your children?’  After more than two decades of his persistence and the Quaker community contemplating these questions, Quakers became the first religious community in the New World to renounce slavery.

Deep reflection on our most closely held values and what they mean for how we live can and does create meaningful, healing change.

The Great Law of the Iroquois, which inspired Benjamin Franklin and other founders as they were creating the American system of government, was written between the 12th and 16th centuries.  To me it is a guide; and a measure.

“The thickness of your skin shall be seven spans — which is to say that you shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism. Your heart shall be filled with peace and good will and your mind filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy. With endless patience you shall carry out your duty and your firmness shall be tempered with tenderness for your people. Neither anger nor fury shall find lodgement in your mind and all your words and actions shall be marked with calm deliberation. In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation.”

The Great Law of the Iroquois evokes values that are ageless and universal.  We know what matters most.  Following its lead, we’re able to give gratifying answers to the four questions.  If enough of us aspire to live as true to our values as John Woolman did, we’ll all be okay. We will see what the expression of humanity in the 21st century looks like, and what it can achieve.

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Director’s Corner: Humanity’s growing ecological footprint: “the only measure which tracks how much nature we have – and how much nature we use.”

“If we did to our bank account what we have been doing to the Earth’s natural capital we would have been bankrupt long ago.”

~Christina Figueres, former Executive Secretary, United Nations Frameworks Convention on Climate Change

Planet Earth has over eons generated a vast endowment of natural capital, which the World Forum on Natural Capital defines as “the world’s stocks of natural assets which include geology, soil, air, water, and all living things.”

Natural capital is the source of human existence and our capacity for thriving. Everything we do is ultimately derived from the endowment of natural assets generated and sustained by the Earth.

Endowments can last forever if they are managed properly. A fundamental tenant for managing an endowment that needs to last forever is to live off interest generated and avoid dipping into interest-generating principal, and in the case of natural capital, avoid contaminating it as well.

The reasons for this are obvious: spending more than the limits of our income puts us in debt. Reducing the size of an endowment reduces its capacity to generate income; contaminating the stocks of air, water, soil, and other living things weakens the endowment even more. Keep this up long enough and, no matter how large and productive, the endowment will eventually weaken and collapse.

This is the situation we are now facing. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and as the population has correspondingly exploded, humanity has been tapping and contaminating our natural capital endowment at an ever-increasing rate. We are now at the point where evidence is starkly clear that our seemingly immense and inexhaustible endowment is in fact very limited and under extreme duress.

Ecological Footprint Image
Credit: Global Footprint Network

Since 1970, humanity has been accumulating deficits of natural capital. Each year since and at an ever-increasing rate we have taken more resources than the Earth can regenerate, and produced more waste than the Earth can absorb – the most globally damaging waste being excessive greenhouse gas emissions – annually reducing Earth’s capacity to support life as we know it.

We know this because of an accounting tool known as the Ecological Footprint, “the only measure which tracks how much nature we have – and how much nature we use.” The Ecological Footprint was developed in 1990 by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees at the University of British Columbia and is managed by the Global Footprint Network (GFN).

To draw attention to humanity’s overuse of nature, GFN created Earth Overshoot Day, which “marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year…. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s biocapacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s Ecological Footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in a year:

(Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day”

Earth Overshoot Chart
Global Footprint Network National Footprint Accounts 2019

The chart to the right shows the inexorably growing natural capital deficit since 1970, as Earth Overshoot Day occurs earlier and earlier during the year. In 1979, Earth Overshoot Day occurred in late October. 40 years later, in 2019, it occurred on July 29.

According to GFN’s Public Data Package, humanity is using the equivalent of 1.75 Earths; and if everyone lived like the average American the estimate is that it would take 5 Earths to support the human population.

Human population – 2.5 billion in 1950, 7.8 billion today – combined with increased consumption and degradation of natural capital explain why we face a climate crisis, why so many ecosystems are under duress, and to a large extent why there is so much societal turmoil globally.

The Global Footprint Network has calculated each nation’s ecological footprint, and offers an ecological footprint quiz that each of us can take to determine our individual footprints. We have the information and tools at hand to understand individually and collectively how much nature we use, and how much nature we can use and stay within the ecological limits that allow life to thrive.

As GFN points out, “The current trend is not our destiny.” We know everything we need to do to reduce our ecological footprint and restore Earth’s capacity to generate natural capital, which are the same things we need to do to reverse global warming and stabilize the climate.

Furthermore, doing what is necessary does not require sacrificing our quality of life. On the contrary, reversing these trends will create jobs and enhance quality of life across the globe. Not doing what is necessary threatens life as we know it.

GFN has identified five key areas of impact and opportunity:

  • Cities: How we design and manage cities
  • Energy: How we power ourselves
  • Food: How we produce, distribute, and consume food
  • Planet: How we help nature thrive
  • Population: How many of us there are

These five areas mirror the solutions to reversing global warming found in Project Drawdown, and in the internationally adopted Sustainable Development Goals. They are in so many ways the same solutions, solutions that offer extraordinary opportunities.

The Ecological Footprint is a practical accounting tool for understanding “how much nature we have, and how much nature we use.” With this ledger, we can be responsible stewards of our natural capital endowment. We can learn to save. Most importantly, we can learn to respect and live within the laws and limits of the finite Earth, the only source of wealth and wellbeing there is. We have no choice. As Donella Meadows reminds us with this sobering observation: “There will always be limits to growth. They can be self-imposed. If they aren’t they will be system-imposed.”

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Director’s Corner: Solar Power & Climate Change–Closing the Emissions Gap

“We are like tenant farmers, chopping down the fence around our house for fuel, when we should be using nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy—sun, wind, and tide.”  Thomas Edison in 1931, as quoted by James D. Newton

On November 26th, 2019, the United Nations Environment Program released its Emissions Gap Report 2019.  The gap the report describes is the one between where greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are, where they are headed, and where they need to be to maintain a stable and safe climate.

In a nutshell, the gap is way too big and it is growing.  According to the report, global temperatures could rise as much as 3.9 degrees Celsius, or 7 degrees Fahrenheit, by the end of the century.  The internationally stated goal for global temperature rise is 1.5 degrees C, or 2.7 degrees F.  The stated absolute upper limit of temperature increase that we can reasonably tolerate is 2.0 degrees C, or 3.6 degrees F.

Areas in the northern latitudes have already seen temperature increases above 2.0 degrees C.

Accompanying the report was a statement released by Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program. In part, that statement reads: “Our collective failure to act early and hard on climate change means we now must deliver deep cuts to emissions.  We need to catch up on the years in which we procrastinated.”

So now what? I have written before about Project Drawdown, which identifies the top 100 solutions to global warming.  Project Drawdown’s research discovered that humanity is already doing – on a small scale – everything we need to do to reverse global warming and draw down GHG concentrations to a safe level.  We just have to dramatically and quickly scale up what we already know how to do.  Viewed through this lens, Project Drawdown sees the climate crisis to be an opportunity to do things differently and in the process restore a safe and stable climate while creating millions of new and sustainable jobs.

Several ready-made solutions identified by Project Drawdown relate to solar energy.  At least three of them present great opportunities here in Alabama.

One is building more large-scale, or utility-scale, solar farms for large-scale energy users like Auburn University.   According to Drawdown: “When their entire life cycle is taken into account, solar farms curtail 94 percent of the carbon emissions that coal plants emit and completely eliminate emissions of sulfur and nitrous oxides, mercury, and particulates….Currently .4 percent of global electricity generation, utility-scale solar PV grows to 10 percent (by 2050)  in our analysis…. That increase could avoid 36.9 gigatons (36.9 billion tons) of carbon dioxide emissions, while saving $5 trillion in operational costs…—the financial impact of producing energy without fuel.”  And solar energy has become very inexpensive.  Wow!

Another solar solution is rooftop solar for homes and small businesses. If rooftop solar deployment can grow to 7 percent of global electricity generation by 2050, a reasonable expectation, that would reduce GHG emissions by 24.6 gigatons.  It would cost $453.14 billion to implement and save $3.46 trillion net operational savings.  Wow!

Solar thermal, or solar water heating, is a third solution.  According to Drawdown, heating water consumes 25 percent of home energy use and 12 percent of energy use in commercial buildings.  This simple technology has been around for a long time and can be easily installed.  Drawdown’s impact assessment: “If solar water heating grows from 5.5 percent of the addressable market to 25 percent, the technology can deliver emissions reductions of 6.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide and save households $774 billion in energy costs by 2050. In our calculations of up-front costs, we assume solar water heaters supplement and do not replace electric and gas boilers.” Wow!

The Southern Environmental Law Center reports that Alabama ranks 13th nationally in raw solar energy potential, and 8th in potential economic benefit from solar generation of electricity.

What are we waiting for?  Thomas Edison saw the future nearly 90 years ago.

By developing state policies that facilitate the rapid development of unlimited, pollution-free solar energy we can do our part as Alabamians to reduce emissions now, and in the process reap significant economic benefits in terms of lower energy costs and substantial job growth.

One important step is for Alabama to establish renewable energy portfolio standards, something a majority of states have already done. From a November 1, 2019 post at the National Conference of State Legislatures website:

States have been very active in the past year revising their Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), which require that a specified percentage of the electricity that utilities sell comes from renewable resources. States have created these standards to diversify their energy resources, promote domestic energy production and encourage economic development. Renewable energy policies help drive the nation’s $64 billion market for wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. These policies can play an integral role in state efforts to diversify their energy mix, promote economic development and reduce emissions. Roughly half of the growth in U.S. renewable energy generation since 2000 can be attributed to state renewable energy requirements.

Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and three territories have established RPS.  Eight states have established voluntary renewable energy goals.  Alabama is one of only twelve states that have neither renewable standards nor voluntary goals.

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication conducts opinion surveys on climate change and renewable energy and maps the results.  The September 19, 2019, Climate Opinion Map for Alabama reveals that at least half of Alabamians want the governor and local officials to do more to address global warming and a majority of Alabamians support the state requiring utilities to produce 20% of the electricity they generate from renewable sources.

Again I ask, what are we waiting for?  As climate science makes clear, we need to act quickly and on a large scale.  Making the transition to utility-scale and rooftop solar energy will help us do what we must to address the climate crisis while, as the National Conference on State Legislatures says, diversifying our energy resources, promoting domestic energy production, and encouraging economic development.

 

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Director’s Corner: The Necessary & Inevitable Transportation Transformation

“The industrial age of energy and transportation will be over by 2030.  Maybe before.”  Tony Seba, Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation

Is it possible that a transformation to sustainable energy and transportation systems is right around the corner?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2017 the transportation sector accounted for the largest portion of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, at 29%.  Electricity generation was a close second at 28%.

Internationally, transport accounts for about 20% of global GHG emissions however globally emissions are on the rise as increases in passenger and freight volumes are growing and are expected to continue to grow through 2050.

So transportation is a significant contributing source of GHG and is projected to grow at a time when the world must do all we can to stop GHG emissions and reduce atmospheric concentrations well below current levels.  In October 2018, the Washington Post published a story on a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that humanity has about a decade to make drastic changes to reduce GHG emissions before the climate reaches cascading tipping points beyond which our current way of life would not be possible.

Something has to happen.

Enter Tony Seba, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and instructor in Entrepreneurship, Disruption and Clean Energy at Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program. He is convinced we are on the cusp of what he calls a “clean disruption of energy and transportation,” which is the title of the book he wrote in 2014.  You can watch a talk Seba gave on this subject in 2018 in Boulder, CO.

He presents a compelling case.  Regarding automobile transportation specifically here are just a few of his observations and predictions:

  • Electric vehicles (EVs), ride-sharing, and autonomous vehicles mean that the world of everyday auto transportation will look entirely different in ten years.
  • Electric vehicles are 5x more energy efficient than those powered by internal combustion engines (ICE); 10x cheaper to “fill up”; 10x cheaper to maintain.
  • EVs will contribute to grid storage of electricity.
  • Individual ownership of autos will plummet.
  • By 2025, ICE vehicles will no longer be competitive with EVs.

Seba explains that cell phones, personal computers, and the Internet started as distinct products serving different markets. Their unforeseen complementary natures became interwoven and accelerated mutual adoption in society and together they transformed the world.  Mostly for the better.

In the same way, according to Seba, solar energy, electric vehicles, and self-driving cars are disruptive technologies that will interweave to exponentially amplify each other and completely change auto transportation – and energy production – to be much more sustainable across society, including making transportation more affordable for everyone. Within the next ten years.

Of course, Seba has much more to say and goes into significantly more interesting and promising detail in his book and lectures.  And because this column is about transportation I am not going to address what he has to say about the near-term transformation of the energy market away from coal, oil, natural gas, biofuels, and nuclear, and the rapid widespread adoption of solar, wind, and other renewables.

All of this is driven by market forces, not government regulation.

Seba’s book leaves unaddressed long-haul trucking, ocean freight, and air travel, which have significant GHG impacts.  But the prospects he does describe are credible, exciting, and heartening, some much-needed positive forecasting during a particularly dark time on the sustainability front when so many trends are headed the wrong way, and amplified by wrong-headed policies at the federal level.

And let’s be clear: market forces alone will not save us.

We need thoughtful policies and programs coordinated at every level of government, nationally and internationally on our interconnected world, to solve the planetary emergency of climate change and the social, economic, and environmental crises related to it.  Which means we need policy makers who represent the public interest and the common good.  Which means electing policy makers who serve the common good.

We need a social contract with each other to act from our common humanity and our shared values, working across difference using the processes of deliberative democracy to envision our desired future and commit to creating it.

Change can happen quickly, for better or for worse.  If change emerges from our shared values and commitment to the common good then the future holds great promise.  Which is why it is essential that we stay engaged over the long term, inspired by our “better angels,” laser-focused on achieving the outcomes we want, and nothing less.

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