Annie Leonard: Climate Action Is an All Hands on Deck Situation
If you know the name Annie Leonard, it’s probably because you are one of the tens of millions of people who have watched her short film, The Story of Stuff. Now we’d like you to know her for another reason: she’s Greenpeace USA’s new executive director.
This is actually a reunion for Greenpeace USA and Annie. She was a toxics campaigner for Greenpeace International starting in 1988. After leaving, she went on to campaign all over the world for the environmental and justice movements. It all culminated with the The Story of Stuff Project and its eight great movies.
In this exclusive interview, we let Annie do the talking.
Greenpeace: The National Climate Assessment came out this week. It states what many already take as a given: that the effects of climate change are occurring now, that they are human-caused and that the solutions lie with people. The jury’s out on how our leaders will lead on the particulars. As a cultural and environmental leader yourself, what does leadership on climate look like?
Annie Leonard: It looks a lot of different ways. This is an all hands on deck situation. We need to be doing what we can in our own communities to reduce our carbon use, but we’re going to get much more done if we can focus more on engaging as citizens and forcing our political and business leaders to take action.
I worry that the paralysis of government makes us focus our attention on small, individual things like composting and recycling and changing our light bulb and riding our bikes. I often say those are a good place to start but a terrible place to stop. Of course we need to do things in our own lives to lessen our impacts.
GP: It seems like to do that, we need to be focused as a movement on building of community. That’s something that Greenpeace has been doing for a long time, and it’s something we have reinforced through a number of our initiatives. But we all know the way to do it is changing. What is the role of on-the-ground community building in the digital age, and how is it changing?
AL: Community building is really key to this. Stronger communities are going to be able to withstand environmental changes better. Also, the more we have strong communities, the more we can reduce our carbon output and meet our needs through community and sharing rather than more and more consumption.
Greenpeace provides information and inspiration. People can’t be engaged citizens without either of them.
But we also have so much room to broaden what it means to be part of our community for supporters. Our supporters provide much needed, crucial financial support, which allows us to not be beholden to any government or corporation. But there are a lot of other ways GP supporters can support our campaigns, from writing letters to attending community meetings to taking direct action and marching in the streets. I’d love to see us call upon our supporters more and to help them expand their understanding of what it means to be involved. In that way, we can support them in their work of strengthening their communities.
GP: It’s important to emphasize that the story of stuff is not about no stuff. In fact, you’re kind of a materialist.
AL: I am not against stuff. I would actually say I am pro stuff. I want us to look at our stuff and pause for a second and have some reverence for all the materials and effort and energy that went into it, and to cherish our stuff so that it lasts longer.
Nobody rational could be against consumption—we all need to consume food and water and we all need to be clothed and to experience art and music. I’m concerned about consumerism, with our seeking meaning and purpose by buying more stuff.
GP: So taking on the kind of consumerism that treats buying and flaunting stuff as a mark of status or values—how does Greepeace fit in? What does Greenpeace offer the struggle against consumerism?
AL: People buy stuff because we think somehow it’s going to make us happy. But when you look at the studies about what really provides lasting happiness, the answers are consistent across nationalities, ethnic groups and income levels.
Once your basic needs are met, what most contribute to your sense of happiness and well being are not new objects but having a strong social fabric, having a sense of purpose beyond yourself, and the act of coming together with people to work toward shared goals. That might be sports, or religion, or PTA, or reclaiming a vacant lot to turn it into a garden.
If you think about it, being involved in Greenpeace campaigns provides all those things. I mean how fortuitous is that?
The more that Greenpeace can inspire people to get involved in making environmental and social change, the better we can help them create meaning and purpose that is greater than the logos on their shirts.
And the more we can get people off couches and out into their communities, the more we can be involved in expanding and strengthening their social fabric and that total high that comes from working with others toward shared goals.
GP: You have stated that success in the environmental arena requires working across a range of causes. What does it look like for Greenpeace to work across movements? How can Greenpeace better build bonds across the progressive spectrum?
AL: I have to say, THAT is the thing I’m most excited about. My mind is just spinning as I think through all the unlikely partners we haven’t worked with before. I think it’s going to require us deepening our systemic analysis. And by that I mean: it’s easy to focus on what our passions are. But it’s not enough.
My passion has always been pollution, environmental justice and waste. Others’ might be climate, or forests or oceans. It’s so easy for us to focus on our passion areas, because that’s what turns us on. But the better we uncover how all the issue areas we’re working on are symptoms of a deeper problem, the more we can see our success is interdependent with a broad range of groups on the progressive side.
If we can see the connections between our environmental concerns and the concerns of, for example, inequality campaigners, we see that a collaboration is not just a tactically better thing. It’s a much, much deeper acknowledgment that we really are going to fail or succeed together.
I also think it’s important to realize that our movement is diverse. We have to offer a diversity of ways to be involved. Some people might want to chain themselves to a fence or tree. Other people might want to provide childcare for the people chained to fences or trees. Some people might want to act on social media to get the word out about the fences and the trees and organizing childcare.
Finally, we have to have room for everybody in our movement, and that requires thinking more broadly about what it means to participate and embrace people for whatever they can contribute.
There’s this great quote from Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock that says, essentially, "If you like everybody in your coalition, then your coalition isn’t big enough."
GP: You have proven experience establishing narratives that are inclusive, that permit lots of people to inhabit a movement and see it as theirs. As Greenpeace moves forward, it has got to find ways of harnessing that kind of inclusivity. What must we watch out for as online activists to make sure we’re being inclusive?
AL: Environmental campaigns have a tendency to talk past people. We have to be sure we’re taking the time to think deeply about who our audience is, and then we have to experiment.
For people who are feedback hungry— and I think everybody at Greenpeace is feedback hungry, because that’s how we get smarter — social media platforms offer us so many ways to get feedback about what parts of our communications strategies are working and what aren’t. Too often environmental campaigns get stuck waving our data and charts in front of people, and when they don’t respond we just yell louder or reprint it in color instead of black and white.
We sometimes think the responsibility and failure is with people out there, when what we’re not understanding is that the responsibility lies with us if we’re not making it relevant.
GP: Permitting yourself to fail, to say: "Oh well, that didn’t work. Let’s move on," that’s not an easy posture in a fast-paced media environment.
AL: I think that it is absolutely crucial that we are innovative and experimental. What we always said at The Story of Stuff— and I’d love to bring this culture with me to GP—is, "We embrace failing, but we have to fail quickly and cheaply." It’s only a failure if you didn’t learn something from it, or if you take too long to change course.
My goal is to work smarter rather than harder.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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