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The Crunch Question on Climate: How Can I Help?

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The Crunch Question on Climate: How Can I Help?
Jérémie Jung / SIGNATURES / Greenpeace

By Paula Tejón Carbajal

Working in climate and environment, you hear this question a lot. On one hand, environmental groups — including Greenpeace — will tell you that every action you take can make a difference. Every action counts! On the other, editorials and experts will tell you that it doesn't matter what you do in your everyday life, because the problem can't be solved by individual action. They may claim that its a cop out and lets corporations off the hook, because the problem lies with the broken but deeply entrenched system we're caught in. After all, 70 percent of emissions are created by 100 companies, right?


As this Vox piece laid out so well, as a climate campaigner, my friends also used to proudly tell me how much they recycle, or about their efforts to eat less meat or buy green products whenever they could afford them. It always broke my heart to tell them: sure… but to have a real impact you need to refuse and reduce first, join a climate strike, or become a politically active citizen who demands the mayor in your city launches an ambitious mobility plan or the government in your country starts holding corporations accountable.

After one of my lectures, which were typically technical and lengthy, their facial expressions had usually changed dramatically. Their body language said it all; and then, silence. Or worse — the defensive response: I do what I can. You know? Or the powerless version: Even if I do that, others probably don't, so what difference does it make? Or the most defeated and most painful one to hear: Well, who cares? We are all screwed anyway, right?

I wanted my friends and family to keep speaking to me, so I started to explore new ways to have conversations with them about climate change and the environmental crisis while being mindful with their emotions (and mine!). Because, the truth is, we need both individual and collective action. And we need them now!

Yes, some have argued that small positive changes in our lifestyles can be a distraction, and even hold back the drive for and uptake of ambitious policies, as we de-prioritize a collective check on corporate and political power. But I believe it isn't a matter of either, or. It's both — AND. Individual and collective actions go hand-in-hand. They are intimately interlinked.

Recycle. Yes, and refuse, reduce and ask big brands to change their business and distribution models. Bike to work. Yes, and work with your neighbors to get your mayor to declare climate emergency and create a plan to increase bike lines and public transport in your city. Change your light bulbs. Yes, and advocate with your community for the uptake of renewable energy to transform the energy system in your region. Eat less meat. Yes, and work with your kids' school to include vegetarian meals in their menus or introduce how to grow their own food in their curriculums. Plant trees. Yes, and demand your government to protect our forests and adopt bold climate policies.

It's true that to tackle the ecological and climate crisis straight on, systemic change is a must; a matter of survival.

We do need to shift societal mindsets from "only the free market and extractive models can spark happiness by creating economic growth" and "having more stuff makes me happy," to "the economy must work within the environmental limits of the planet" and "self-worth is linked to our relationships and experiences, not buying more stuff."

We do need collective action to drive the system change we want to see.

But we can push those shifts forward by encouraging positive stories, co-creating solutions that shape the new normal, and working towards an environment with role models and reward systems that mirror these behaviors as socially desirable.

For this systemic change to happen, we need society to acknowledge the magnitude of these shifts and we need to start somewhere. And that somewhere can start with each of us.

No, individual actions won't have an immediate impact on world problems. Using a tote bag or buying fruit that isn't repacked in foam isn't going to stop the production of single-use plastic at the scale required. But it could make a difference to your local city or community as a first step, because personal positive actions have the potential to empower people, build agency, encourage role models that inspire others and make them feel they are part of the solution.

Small signals can spark hope and search for others to build communities that take action. When the community takes action, it becomes more resilient, therefore more independent and sufficient.

Rosa Park or Greta Thunberg were and are both ordinary people who did and are still doing extraordinary things … and as a consequence, they changed (and still are changing) the world, creating a new normal that was unthinkable before they took that first brave step.

Not every single-handed action you take will result in a civil rights movement or stop an oil rig in its tracks. But it might change someone's mind around a dinner table, or at a board table, or wherever it is you choose to take your courageous step. Courage means different things to different people, because it happens at the edge of our own personal comfort zone. Each individual's courage is different — but equally valid and equally bold.

Personal actions are a courageous and valuable starting point, let's not shame people for doing what they can, or make people feel guilty for not doing enough.

But equally let's make sure we don't stop there. From student to CEO, let's make sure those entry points enable as many people as possible to join a meaningful collective journey where the scale of our acts is proportionate to the scale of our responsibilities and our possibilities.

Let's be optimistic, courageous and honest with ourselves. Let's acknowledge the urgent need to change our current socio economic system. And yes, that includes the way we think, behave and live, which means we need the small and the big actions, and anything and everything in-between.

Paula Tejón Carbajal is a Global Campaign Strategist for Greenpeace International.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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