The term "urban forest" may sound like an oxymoron. When most of us think about forests, we may picture vast expanses of tall trunks and dappled sunlight filtering through the leaves, far from the busyness of the city. But the trees that line city streets and surround apartment complexes across the U.S. hold great value, in part because of their proximity to people.
"Per tree, you're getting way more value for an urban tree than a tree out in the wild," says Mark McPherson, founder and director of a Seattle nonprofit called City Forest Credits. In an increasingly urbanizing world, cities are, after all, "right where people live and breathe and recreate."
Trees—and urban trees in particular—provide enormous benefits. For starters, they're responsible for producing oxygen and removing CO2 and other pollutants from the air. Urban forests in the U.S. remove an estimated 75,000 tons of air pollution per year. They reduce the impact of falling rain and encourage that water to soak into the ground, reducing flooding and erosion as well as preventing pollution from entering waterways. And the shade they provide isn't just good for picnics; trees absorb heat and release water vapor that cools the surrounding air. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that trees reduce the energy consumption needed to cool homes in the U.S. by more than 7%.
To find out just how much one tree can do, you can even estimate the value of the benefits of a specific tree near you using this calculator developed by a collaboration of tree experts and nonprofits.
The trouble is that these benefits are not equitably distributed. "Nationally, there's a trend for trees to follow wealth," says Leslie Berckes, the director of programs for Trees Forever, a nonprofit environmental group that works with communities across Iowa and Illinois to plant and care for trees. She says wealthier communities tend to have more trees for a variety of reasons, including racist housing practices. "Redlining left a lot of scars on communities, one of those being less green space, less tree cover," Berckes says.
And the results are life-threatening. In the absence of trees, these urban areas tend to be concrete—either buildings or sidewalks or streets. These impervious surfaces absorb heat during the day and then release it at night, preventing the relief of cooling temperatures, and creating urban heat islands. "People are getting sick or dying from heat," Berckes says, "and their utility bills are going up. … Heat is the biggest killer from [a] natural disaster perspective."
Building Community by Planting Trees
To better support the health of these communities, Berckes' organization employs local teenagers to plant and care for trees. Trees Forever pays a starting rate of $10 an hour—higher than the state's minimum wage of $7.25—and then bumps it up to $15 an hour for crew leaders. In addition, Trees Forever provides teens with professional development resources such as resume-building, mock interviews, financial literacy courses, stress management tools, and shadowing professionals in green jobs. Although COVID-19 has paused some of these activities, the organization sees this multifaceted support as an investment in a local workforce that will then have the knowledge and skills to continue the important work of tree-planting for building healthier communities.
Dawud Benedict, 18, has been planting trees with Trees Forever since the fall of 2020. He applied after hearing about a friend's positive experience working with the organization. "It just sounded nice to do something more for Des Moines area," he says. The work has taught him to appreciate trees and their benefits to the community and the world, he says, as well as to work together as a group. He enjoys being able to drive past work sites and point out trees that he helped plant in his community. "I feel like I'm making a bigger impact," he says.
In recent years, Trees Forever has endeavored to put equity at the center of their work through training and education, though Berckes admits that a lot more work must be done. "Our own staff is all White," she says. "Iowa is a predominantly White state. When we go to work with some of these small towns, I bet the percentage of White people is 80 to 90-or-more percent." Much of the group's outreach has historically focused on door-knocking and connecting with groups like neighborhood associations, churches, and local businesses. But Trees Forever's traditional methods weren't reaching Hispanic residents who moved to these communities to work in the meatpacking industry. So to make access to the benefits of urban trees more equitable, the organization is working to overcome language barriers and meet these community members where they are.
West Des Moines is home to three Microsoft data centers, and two more are slated for construction starting in 2021. In the corporation's efforts to invest in communities that house its data centers, it funded Trees Forever's work in 2019. And in 2020, the collaborative piloted a project that promises to put equity first.
The project, called the Impact Scorecard, is being rolled out in West Des Moines as well as Phoenix. The creator of the scorecard, Mark McPherson, says Microsoft was looking for high-impact projects, and his organization, City Forest Credits, developed a way to measure the impacts of trees on equity, human health, and the environment.
"As a society, we have not found a way to put natural capital on the balance sheet as an asset," he says. "There's no asset value to the trees; only an expense item." As such, trees necessarily fall to the bottom of many city's budgets, or off of them altogether. "Urban trees don't just store carbon, they reduce stormwater, they improve air, they provide energy savings in terms of heating and cooling. They can, if done right, tremendously advance environmental justice—they provide human health benefits, biodiversity, bird and pollinator habitat, slope stability, and the list goes on. They are like utilities," McPherson says. "They provide incredible services."
Those services are immensely valuable to cities. They reduce the costs of doing all kinds of other work, including stormwater management, air purification, and water retention.
Sure, some carbon markets put a dollar value on capturing CO2. But the problem, McPherson found, was that carbon markets couldn't capture any of the values of urban forests specifically. Carbon credits are typically sold by the ton for huge acreages of forest. In the city, an individual tree isn't going to store enough carbon to make a blip on these particular charts, but it has incredible value for countless lives.
So he teamed up with his older brother, Greg McPherson, a scientist emeritus with the U.S. Forest Service who founded the Center for Urban Forest Research. In the '90s, he moved to Chicago to figure out how to quantify the value of the services that trees provide to the city, and he continues to refine benefit-cost analyses for trees.
The Impact Scorecard is the latest outcome of this work. It aims to get corporations and other private funders to underwrite the costs of doing important community-led work through the planting of urban forests.
"That's a critical part of environmental justice," explains Mark McPherson, who, as a White man, says he works hard to avoid the tropes of White saviorism. "Not just, you beam in from your NGO office and plant trees," but rather "to actually have these projects led by the local community."
Letting Communities Lead
That's what drives the work of Lydia Scott, director of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative. This partnership brings together 14 organizations—from the Morton Arboretum to the U.S. Forest Service, the Chicago Parks Department to the Chicago Department of Public Health—to leverage resources and expertise in support of the urban forest in and around Chicago. She says trees can help reduce crime, improve property values, and reduce temperatures.
To let communities lead, though, members of the initiative had to be willing to listen. Some neighborhoods, for example, didn't want trees or actively removed them to prevent obstructing street lights because of safety concerns. Police departments, too, sometimes cite a need for open lines of sight on sidewalks and in parks. "This was an eye-opener for us," Scott says. It all comes down to having the right tree in the right place. That's why her organization works within communities to show the value of trees and evidence of the ways trees can support a different dynamic.
But unlike a forest on public lands or a reservation, urban forests can't be managed as a whole. Urban areas are a mix of public and private lands, so to plant trees requires the buy-in of a greater number of stakeholders.
"We know trees have a dramatic impact on quality of life," Scott says. They are critical infrastructure in communities and should be protected and budgeted as such, she says, but they are rarely recognized for the value and services they provide. All too often she hears that "trees are a luxury we handle after everything else." With COVID-19, being outside is more important than ever, and people are seeing and appreciating trees in a whole new way. But in some ways the work is made harder, Scott says. City budgets are tight and meeting basic needs like housing and safety is necessarily taking priority.
Here's where the scorecard comes in. It matches communities who want to invest in their tree cover with private funders, such as corporations who want to make investments that have a measurable impact. That impact is broken down into three categories that emphasize the value of urban trees specifically: equity, human health, and environmental benefits.
Mark McPherson says that urban forests are unique because they connect global atmospheric benefits with ecosystem benefits and resilience and mitigation benefits. "Very seldom do you get a climate action that fits all of those," he says.
To look at the benefits of trees at scale, the Chicago Region Trees Initiative developed a map that breaks it down by neighborhood, indicating the percentage of land covered by impervious surfaces, the percentage of tree cover, and the financial benefit those trees provide the community. It also includes location-specific information on air quality, heat, flooding, and vulnerable populations.
Screenshot from the Chicago Region Trees interactive map page.
Take, for example, the La Grange Park area of south Chicago. It has 47% tree cover and 30% impervious surfaces. The calculator estimates the community gains more than $750,000 a year from these trees. In contrast, Bedford Park, just to the south, has only 7% tree cover and 59% impervious surfaces. Their benefit from these trees is $300,000. But the calculator also estimates that the community could reasonably boost that tree canopy to as much as 65% of the neighborhood's land area—a ninefold increase—which would also up their benefits.
Scott says the priority communities don't always track exactly on racial or socioeconomic lines. In fact, the two neighborhoods with the fewest trees, according to their assessment, were actually quite well-off financially, so the initiative decided to focus its efforts elsewhere. These communities have the resources available to make change but choose not to.
Instead, the initiative is prioritizing projects that put health and equity at the center. An assessment of educational facilities, for example, identified a list of 24 schools and 24 day cares in Chicago within 500 feet of an expressway. The initiative is doing air-quality testing and planting vegetative buffers as a means of improving air quality at each of these facilities. (A 2013 study found that adding a row of trees between a roadway and nearby houses reduced pollution levels in the houses by 50%.) By using the Impact Scorecard, funders have third party verification of the health, equity, and environmental benefits of the project.
"The trees in our neighborhoods tell a story about our society—one of equity," Mark McPherson says. The story we're trying to craft, he says, is one in which living in a city is healthy, equitable, and connected with nature.
BREANNA DRAXLER is the environmental editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice. An award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines, she won a 2020 National Magazine Award for a collaborative climate action guide that she published with Audubon Magazine. Breanna also writes, reports and edits for National Geographic online, Grist, and Audubon Magazine, among others. She serves as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She also has a Master's degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of Seattle, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. Her previous staff positions include editing at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine. She speaks English and French.
Reposted with permission from Yes! Magazine
By Marianne Dhenin
Many Americans learned to ride bicycles as kids. I still remember zipping around a cul de sac in my neighborhood, shrieking with glee and reveling in my newfound freedom after the training wheels came off. But those who did not have the opportunity to learn to ride during their childhood often face uncertainty or anxiety about learning as adults. Bicycle education programs help those who want to become cyclists overcome that fear while also addressing problems in their communities — from pollution to racial injustice.
And biking's popularity has only increased during the pandemic: Bicycle sales skyrocketed in the United States in March 2020 as commuters sought to avoid crowded means of public transportation. Organizations around the world are using bicycle education to empower new riders and advocate for more sustainable, equitable, and inclusive communities.
In 2015, Germany coined a new term, Willkommenskultur, to describe the welcoming culture rolled out to greet arriving refugees, many of whom were fleeing the Syrian war. This culture led to an explosion of new volunteer organizations eager to address the needs of new arrivals. Few groups have had as lasting an impact (or as much fun) as #BIKEYGEES in Berlin. According to Annette Krüger, its founder, the organization teaches "women from all over the world" how to ride bicycles.
For immigrants to Germany, where about nine out of every 10 residents own a bicycle, learning how to ride means becoming part of a community. On bikes, women "can discover areas in their neighborhood" and experience "an improvement in independence, mobility, and security," says Greta Aigner, a trainer at #BIKEYGEES.
Annette Krüger, right, and another #BIKEYGEES coach, left, help a woman balance on a bicycle during a #BIKEYGEES class in Berlin. Deutsche Fernsehlotterie / Jan Ehlers
#BIKEYGEES was awarded the German Bicycling Award in 2018 for its service to the community, its focus on women's empowerment, and its promotion of sustainable transportation. Krüger and her team now give regular riding lessons in 15 locations in Berlin and the neighboring town of Brandenburg. She characterizes the courses as "two hours of happiness."
"You don't have to register," she says. "You can come as you are. We only ask: Do you want to learn how to ride a bike? Or do you want to learn how to teach to ride a bike? We are all learning something." Krüger's advice to anyone looking to make an impact is to start now. "It's so easy to change the world, but we have to do it," she says, "and the bike is the perfect vehicle for it."
Making a More Livable City
Like #BIKEYGEES in Berlin, many bicycle education programs in the U.S. work with immigrants who did not learn to ride as kids. Lana Zitser, a Russian immigrant who has spent most of her life in the U.S., says she only committed to learning in her 30s to set a good example for her 11-year-old son who was also learning to ride. She says that while her older brother learned how to ride when they were kids, her mother was "extremely overprotective" of her. "My girlfriends who also grew up in Russia don't know how to ride bicycles either," she says.
Zitser signed up for classes with an organization called Sustainable Streets, based in Los Angeles County. "I'm grateful for the experience," she says. "Now I ride around the neighborhood with my family."
Ron Durgin, co-founder and executive director of Sustainable Streets, says he loves empowering new riders like Zitser. He co-founded the organization in 2009 with the belief that turning more Angelenos into cyclists would mean turning Los Angeles' urban environment into "a more livable community."
"There's this kind of mindset about Los Angeles," Durgin says. "People come to Los Angeles, and they think they have to buy a car." With millions of cars on its streets, people living in Los Angeles County are exposed to 60% more vehicle pollution than the average Californian, and a whopping 250% more than San Francisco Bay area residents.
Ron Durgin, center in a green shirt, and a group of bicyclists prepare for a Sustainable Streets' social ride in Los Angeles. Sustainable Streets
Los Angeles County's auto-centric urban planning also means its streets are less walkable and its residents have little access to parks or other public spaces. Across Los Angeles County, there is an average of only about 3 acres of parklands per 1,000 residents, which is a meager one-third of the national average.
"Whether it's air quality, water quality, land use, [or] the way we allocate public space," Durgin says, cyclists can have a big impact on city life. Research shows that cities with good bicycle infrastructure and more riders have higher per capita GDPs, less traffic and pollution, and happier citizens.
More than a decade after its founding, Sustainable Streets' adult education programs have helped hundreds learn how to ride, understand the rules of the road, navigate their cities, and perform basic bicycle maintenance. The organization has also had great success influencing bike infrastructure. Sustainable Streets and its allies have lobbied the city of Santa Monica to improve bicycle parking and even establish a dedicated bike campus near its headquarters. At the bike campus, cyclists can practice riding and learn the rules of the road in a safe environment.
"It has always been a goal of mine to learn to ride a bike," says Julie Maharaj, who attended an adult learn-to-ride class on the Santa Monica bike campus last year. "[The class] has definitely given me more confidence and a feeling of accomplishment," she says.
Durgin says his best advice for other groups looking to start bicycle education programs is to lean on community partners. If you can't find partners, make them. Sustainable Streets has gained favor with law enforcement officers, city administrators, and skeptical locals by inviting them on social rides. "We just tried to weave [them] in," Durgin says. "There's just a joy and a feeling of freedom when you're on a bike and getting outside and socializing with other people."
Leveling the Playing Field
Unlike Los Angeles, New York City is known for having its fair share of bicyclists. According to the New York Department of Transportation, nearly 900,000 New Yorkers ride regularly, and more than 50,000 depend on their bicycles to commute. But research shows that the majority of people who choose to commute by bike are wealthy and White. They are often drawn to bicycling for environmental or health reasons.
But for lower-income communities and communities of color, especially for people with disabilities or those who have health limitations, bicycling is not always so feasible or even desirable. Members of these communities often have to live farther from city centers and travel longer distances for work, often on roads that lack the infrastructure for safe cycling.
"When you talk about access… it's not only about providing someone a bicycle," says Hilena Tibebe, board member of Bike New York and founder of Ride to DC, which works to raise awareness of the racial disparity within the cycling community and increase access and inclusion for cyclists who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. It's also about "providing someone a helmet, creating a route that is accessible for all, being able to ride a bike, [and] having the roads to bike on," she says.
Low-income residents and people of color accounted for much of the uptick in cyclists in the 2000s, but they are also often neglected by investments in cycling infrastructure that make roads safer and more accessible. Instead, cities tend to focus on the needs of wealthy White cyclists.
For Bike New York, whose mission is to "transform the lives of New Yorkers through cycling," these disparities are unacceptable. By placing its adult education and after-school classes, summer camps for kids, and bicycle libraries (an innovative program that allows kids to borrow bicycles in public parks for recreational use) in underserved communities, the organization is trying to "level the playing field," says Ken Podziba, the organization's CEO. "There aren't enough people of color riding, and we're trying to help."
A volunteer helps a participant in a "Learn to Ride – Adult Class" organized by Bike New York for adults learning to ride a bicycle on May 3, 2013 in New York. STAN HONDA / AFP via Getty Images
Bike New York now provides bicycle education to 30,000 New Yorkers per year in all five boroughs and has a network of more than 3,000 volunteers.
Podziba says that Bike New York's largest boon has been partnering with the city and placing its education programs in local parks, which provide safe spaces for riders to learn and practice and for Bike New York to store its bikes and helmets. In the future, Podziba says he hopes others will emulate this model and that there will be better communication among bike organizations "so we could all learn together, work together, support each other, build each other up."
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
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While solar energy has plenty of benefits, there are also high upfront costs associated with installing a home renewable energy system. So, at the end of the day, are solar panels worth it?
If you want to minimize your ecological impact while reducing or even eliminating monthly utility bills, solar panels may be well worth the money. But they may not be the best solution for every home. In this article, we'll review solar panel costs, longevity and return on investment to help you decide whether they're right for you.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
How Much Do Solar Panels Cost?
The first thing to be aware of is that installing a residential solar system is always going to be expensive. Yes, saving money on your monthly utility bills can help balance that startup expense, and you can get some incentives to help undercut the cost of solar panels (more on that in a moment). But ultimately, there's no way around it: Investing in a residential solar system can be pricey.
How pricey, exactly? Your total solar energy system cost will depend on a myriad of factors, including the type of solar panels you choose, the number of panels required for your home, and the specific solar panel installation company you hire.
With that said, according to Sunrun, the average cost of installing solar panels in 2021 is between $16,200 to $21,400. And it's worth noting that this actually represents a significant drop in the price tag for solar panels. Solar installation is becoming more and more affordable, even if the startup price remains a little daunting.
Offsetting the Cost of Solar Panels
Something else to be aware of is that, over the past decade or so, both the federal government and many state governments have unveiled programs to provide financial incentives for solar installation. These programs include local and federal tax credits and other rebates. Top solar companies are usually able to help you identify and apply to any programs you are eligible for.
The current federal solar tax credit, called an Investment Tax Credit (ITC) provides a 26% credit for systems installed between 2020 and 2022. State incentives can be added on top for even more savings. However, even with numerous solar incentives, pricing and solar panel installation costs can still be steep.
How Long Do Solar Panels Last?
As you think about the initial startup investment in solar panels, another question to consider is system longevity. After you buy solar panels, how long do they last? Will they function long enough for you to get your money's worth?
Again, the answer can vary slightly depending on the specific type of solar panels you choose. As a rule of thumb, however, most residential solar systems last between 20 and 30 years and require only the most minimal maintenance and upkeep. Most of the best solar panels come backed with fairly rigorous warranties, ensuring your system holds up for at least two decades. Of course, when purchasing a solar panel system, you'll want to take a close look at the warranty information offered.
The longevity of your solar panel system can also add to the value of your home. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, buyers nationwide have been willing to pay an average premium of about $15,000 for a home with a solar array. In many cases, that alone can cover most of all of your solar investment.
How Much Money Will You Save With Solar Panels?
Related to the question of panel longevity is the question of a solar power system's return on investment, or ROI. How much power is a home solar system going to generate? How much money will it save you? Will month-to-month electric bill savings mean that your solar system "pays for itself" after a few years?
The amount of money you save on your monthly utility costs can vary depending on the efficiency and power of your solar panels, as well as your household energy consumption habits. Keep in mind that your savings will be greater if you live in an area where electricity rates are higher; by contrast, if you live somewhere with a lower cost of electricity, the money you save from going solar may be comparatively meager.
EnergySage notes that, over the lifespan of your solar system, you're likely to save anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 on utility costs. This may or may not be enough for the unit to "pay for itself," though an upside of solar power ROI is that it's fairly instantaneous. Once your system is installed, you'll be able to start saving money right away.
Free Quote: See How Solar Panels Would Cost for Your Home
Fill out this 30-second form to get a quote from one of the best solar energy companies in your area. You could an average of $2,500 each year on your electric bills and receive a tax rebate.
Are Solar Panels Worth It for Your House?
Ultimately, whether solar panels are worth it will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case and home-by-home basis. Simply put, solar power is a smarter option for some than for others. The question is, how can you tell whether you're a good candidate for solar panels?
Best Candidates for Solar Power
Solar panels tend to be a better investment for homeowners who meet the following criteria:
- Ample exposure to sun: If you live in a part of the country that gets lots of exposure to sunlight throughout the year, then you'll probably get more mileage out of your solar panels. It's little wonder that solar power is most popular in places like Arizona, Texas, California and even North Carolina.
- Accommodating roof space: A good solar system will require plenty of surface area on your roof, unobstructed by skylights, chimneys or other fixtures. With a smaller roof, you can still potentially install a system, but you'll need to find the most efficient solar panels (which are often more expensive) to maximize your limited space.
- High electricity bills: The amount of money you save by going solar will be directly proportional to the amount you spend each month on electrical costs. So, if you live in a community where the price of electricity is pretty high, you stand to achieve greater savings when you go solar.
Who's Not a Good Candidate for Solar Power?
By contrast, some homes may not be as well-positioned to reap a high solar power ROI.
- Homes without much sun exposure: If you know anything about how solar panels work, it won't be a surprise that darker areas benefit less from this renewable energy source. In a place where there tends to be a lot of cloud coverage or more limited solar exposure for good chunks of the year, the jump to solar may not be as advantageous.
- Homes with too much shade: Similarly, if your roof tends to be shaded for long stretches of the day (for example, if your home is in the shadow of a larger building or a lot of dense trees), then your solar panels may not get the sun exposure they need to generate a solid ROI.
- You pay lower costs for electricity: If your electrical bills are already fairly minimal, then installing a residential solar system will yield more modest and measured savings.
- You don't have the right kind of roof: Certain types of roofs just aren't as well-suited for solar power installation. For example, older or historic homes that have particular kinds of tiled roofs and homes that have larger skylights may not be good matches for solar energy.
How to Determine Your Solar Power ROI
Is solar worth it for you and your household? There are a few steps you can take to weigh solar energy pros and cons and make an informed decision.
One option is to consult with a solar panel installation company that can assess your roof and your positioning in relation to the sun, then supply you with a basic estimate of how much money you could save by installing solar panels. Reputable installers can also provide greater detail about the different types of solar panels that are available and recommend the technology you'll need to realize a significant solar power ROI for your home.
Even before you take the initial step and meet with a solar installer, a number of solar companies offer online calculators, which you can use to estimate your monthly utility savings. We'll stress that these calculators only give a very rough estimate and should be taken lightly, but they can still create a basic sense of whether solar panels are worth it for your home.
So, Are Solar Panels Worth It? It All Depends...
The bottom line for homeowners: Solar energy represents one of the best ways to reduce your dependence on traditional utility companies. And for many homeowners, solar power ROI will be well worth it. With that said, the startup cost can be prohibitive, and not every homeowner will achieve the same bang for their buck.
As you consider whether solar panels are a sound investment for your home, make sure you take into account cost, warranty, longevity and overall efficiency, all while seeking guidance from qualified solar experts.
The irony hit Katherine Kehrli, the associate dean of Seattle Culinary Academy, when one of the COVID-19 pandemic's successive waves of closures flattened restaurants: Many of her culinary students were themselves food insecure. She saw cooks, bakers, and chefs-in-training lose the often-multiple jobs that they needed simply to eat.
"The pandemic has leveled the most marginalized members of our society—the people working two, three jobs at minimum wage," Kehrli says. She knows the statistics by heart: FeedingAmerica.org says 50 million people may experience hunger and food insecurity this year. "Its tendrils," she adds, "are nasty."
Kehrli knew she wouldn't be able to make the entire U.S. food system more equitable and just, but she did have an idea to help her local community. Six years before, after spending time in the culinary school's bake shop, she'd gotten hooked on the alchemy of flour, water, yeast, and salt. She took workshops with master bakers and built a library of cookbooks on bread. Kehrli even started a regional network of people who shared her hobby: Northwest Bread Bakers. She loved to bake, and during the pandemic, other homebound Americans were beginning to feed sourdough starters by the millions. Kehrli wondered: Could a trending private hobby help meet wider needs?
A little policy research showed that, in Washington, bread was one of the few homemade foods the state health department allowed to be donated to food banks without needing to be made in a licensed commercial kitchen. And so in April, from Kehrli's home—where giant bags of flour eventually displaced the family car from the garage—the Community Loaves initiative was born. She called on a hive of baking friends to develop a sandwich-friendly, easy-to-execute sourdough recipe, the "honey oat pan loaf." The group found a food bank in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland called Hopelink that agreed to take the bread if they could make and package it in a standardized way. That first batch, the initiative donated 19 loaves.
Ten months later, the numbers have mushroomed. Nearly 700 volunteer bakers, drivers, and flour packers have contributed to the donation of nearly 15,000 loaves to 11 food pantries around Seattle. Two Sundays a month, the individual bakers each make four loaves (three to donate, one to keep) that get distributed among 36 neighborhood hubs. Community Loaves is on track to give away more than 30,000 loaves before the end of 2021.
The initiative has already expanded to three locations in Oregon, and Kehrli expects to inspire other cities. She's already gotten calls from bakers in Connecticut, California, and Minnesota wondering how they can replicate the idea.
The proud but visibly fatigued founder is braced for more in early January when she beams in for a virtual interview. Kehrli had been up until 3:44 a.m. the night before, she reports wearily, then up again at 7 and back in action with no shower or makeup. "I can't sleep anymore," she says."I have stuff to do."
One of her two college-age sons slips in a veggie bowl for her to snack on, because she hasn't had time for lunch. Things will only intensify from here. The Today show is scheduled to air a national segment on Community Loaves in two days, and the project's new website needs to be ready. In the middle of it all, someone shows up at the door needing labels, which had been delayed in shipping. Kehrli's supportive, operationally involved husband, Tim, makes a quick decision: "I'm going to give her bags and twist ties," he declares, "because that's all I have."
The work continues, because demand isn't letting up.
Inspiration and Limitations
During the pandemic, mutual-aid societies have cropped up around the country, reviving an old concept with roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The idea was that everyone had something to contribute, and everyone had something they needed. By 1920, a presidential report estimated that one in three adult men in the U.S. was a member of a fraternal society. During the 1918 flu pandemic, mutual-aid societies organized by and for women also multiplied. New Orleans, in particular, developed a strong mutual-aid tradition, with an estimated 135 organizations dedicated to supporting Black people, nearly one-third of them for women.
For today's mutual-aid societies, the catch line is often "solidarity, not charity."
Community Loaves, too, draws on the model of neighbors helping neighbors. And Kehrli took inspiration from an earlier time as well. Her grandmother, Ruth Wiesen, was known for making cookies, pies, or fudge for every bake-sale fundraiser, neighborhood social, funeral luncheon, or other community need. And she participated in the interfaith CROP Walks against hunger for as long as she physically could. When Kehrli told Wiesen about Community Loaves, her grandmother said, "I would've loved to have [baked for] that." Wiesen died in 2020, at 105—but not before helping Kehrli put labels on Community Loaves bread bags, marshaling her frail 85-pound body and still-powerful will to help even from her nursing home.
Sourdough donation isn't widespread yet, but related efforts are out there. Kehrli drew on one Midwestern model, Neighbor Loaves, that uses commercial bakeries. And celebrated artisanal baker Guy Frenkel has started a similar initiative in L.A., Cast Your Bread, that has inspired chapters in Baltimore and Israel. Kehrli gets calls from around the country—she logs them on a "New Cities Interest" spreadsheet—and she's expecting more. By April, she hopes to have expansion support in place, including a training session for others wanting to start something similar.
Still, Kehrli is dissatisfied with a food system that leaves people hungry—and is ever-conscious of her project's limitations. "It is just one piece of work on a scale that is extremely large in terms of what's needed," she says. "Yes, we're doing our part, and yes, I want us to feel good about it, and yes, it's still not enough."
Still, recipients who learn that volunteers are doing the baking appreciate the effort. Teresa, a Hopelink client in the Kirkland area who preferred that her last name not be used, says she was touched when she found out that fellow community members made the loaves. "This to me is the representation of community, people stepping in and learning and sharing love by trying to help the community," she says. "Baking is a special genre. There's no guarantees. But when the loaves are perfect, they're amazing."
Despite its limited scale, Community Loaves has a range of impacts, even beyond addressing hunger. One of them: expanding the market for locally grown, locally milled grains. The initiative uses high-extraction and whole grain flour. It's bought wholesale from two regional mills, Cairnspring Mills and Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill, and then purchased in smaller units by bakers as part of their contribution. "Flour has been relegated to the commodity market for a long time. Just like coffee and craft beer have gone through their days, flour is having its moment," Kehrli says. "We are helping to educate and share that not all flour is the same. I think we are helping support an improved foundation for choosing local ingredients that have been minimally processed."
The high-extraction flour has higher nutritional content, Kehrli asserts, including fiber and protein. People with celiac disease and gluten intolerance still can't eat bread—but anecdotally, many with gluten sensitivity have reported the Community Loaves iteration doesn't disagree with them. "We attribute that to the longer sourdough fermentation process and the quality of the flour," she says.
Then there's the effect on bakers, who not only give to others, but also benefit from connecting and contributing, safely and from home, during a pandemic. They come from a range of ages and backgrounds. Kinsley Ogunmola, for instance, a millennial software engineer, leads a hub in Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood. Up to 20 volunteers, ranging from 20-somethings to retirement age, drop off their loaves with him biweekly (he wrote a special code to let them into the building). From there, he coordinates transportation to the food pantry. "Our lobby smells like a bakery every other Sunday," he says. "My neighbor keeps asking me about bread now whenever I see him. I hope it spreads."
Community Loaves starts volunteers off with an online introductory session, which Kehrli leads. She's done more than 50 to date. At one orientation, in September, the range of the bakers' experience was apparent. There was Diane Moore, who had celebrated her 50th birthday with a weeklong baking course in France. And there was Clare Chan, who had zero baking experience but wanted to volunteer along with her teenage sons Caelen Yoong, 16, and Lucien Yoong, 14.
By January, Moore and Chan were both still involved and loving it. Chan reported that her family hadn't missed a single bread-donation Sunday since they started. In her native Singapore, she used to volunteer in senior homes, but she loves that the whole family can be involved in this service, and she hopes they'll keep it up even after the pandemic. "It's a humbling and rewarding experience for us to put in the time to make the bread and know that it's going to families in need," she says. "When you take the loaves out of the oven, that's the best part."
Moore had thought she might get bored making a sandwich loaf over and over, but found that consistency is its own challenge. "It turns out it's hard to perfect the pan loaf. It's not as forgiving in some ways as an artisan loaf. I feel like each time I'm learning more," she says. "This project nourishes me. It's been a gift. I was just ready to hand off bread, but there's a lovely connection to a community of bakers who share resources and recipes. It's a joyful project, and rewarding."
LYNN FREEHILL-MAYE writes about sustainability and related topics from her home in New York's Hudson Valley. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, CityLab, Civil Eats, and Sierra, among other publications.
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
By YES! editors
It's been a hell of a year. YES! editors recommend relevant and illuminating books that help us find our way forward.
1. All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis
A splendid offering of wisdom, warmth, and inspiration to reshape our vision of climate futures, All We Can Save is a skillfully curated collection of essays, poems, and illustrations that is decidedly feminine in its character and feminist in its approach. In her essay, "Sacred Resistance," contributor Tara Houska writes, "Much of the space we call 'the climate movement' appears to be modeled after the same systems of inequity and separation we are attempting to change, undo, or outright dismantle." In a beautiful cross-section of society's most visionary voices on climate, the book instead invokes the powers of compassion, connection, and justice. Remaking the world is possible, they say, but whatever you do, don't call it hope. The pursuit of solutions cannot afford passive optimism. As Houska concludes, "We are never far from the answer to the problem we have created — it is within each of us." — Breanna Draxler
2. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Isabel Wilkerson's Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents invites a reappraisal of how we view race in this country. The book is eminently relevant in these fraught times, where the topic of race is everywhere. Yet Wilkerson never uses the words "race" or "racism" to describe the experience of African Americans, continuing an approach she took in her previous work, The Warmth of Other Suns. Rather she writes about "upper caste" and "lower caste" to describe Jim Crow hierarchy, where everything you could or couldn't do was based on what you looked like.
She compares India's treatment of its lower-caste citizens and Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews to America's treatment of African Americans. Racism, she says, is insufficient to capture the enormity of what Black people endure. The word is so overused, people stop hearing it. She calls race "the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin." It's an invitation for people to peer beneath the surface of the language they've gotten accustomed to. — Lornet Turnbull
Jan Morris is primarily known to contemporary readers as a British travel writer with dozens of books to her name. But she was also a journalist and historian who covered the first ascent of Mount Everest and the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, and also one of the first high-profile transgender artists, beginning with her 1974 coming-out memoir, Conundrum. Morris died Nov. 20, 2020, at age 94.
One of Morris' most interesting works is Hav, a novel in the guise of a travelogue to a fictitious Mediterranean city-state. The book includes 1985's Last Letters From Hav, and its 2006 sequel (when she "revisited" the country), Hav of the Myrmidons.
The book explores the conflict between tradition and modern life, Cold War tensions, indigenous populations facing extinction, how society changes after tumultuous upheaval, and the rise of religious fundamentalism and neoliberal economics. All of it is told with Morris' razor-sharp observations and poetic language, and as Ursula K. LeGuin notes in the introduction, "it is a very good guidebook, I think, to the early twenty-first century." — Chris Winters
4. Just Us: An American Conversation
Under discussion in Claudia Rankine's Just Us: An American Conversation is our abiding but often unacknowledged American system of racial inequality. Rankine, a Black woman, attempts honest conversations with White friends and strangers who don't see what to her is the obvious reality of everyday White supremacy. In a series of telling moments — on an airplane, at a dinner party — Rankine allows herself to push against the glass wall of social convention by acknowledging racism. Her measured but discomforting comments are an experiment that invites other people to see themselves through her eyes and perhaps arrive at a moment of shared reality. But the smart, liberal White people Rankine engages usually respond with denial or the lack of awareness bred of ingrained privilege. Brilliant and generous, this book of essays, poems, and images is one for all Americans to give, share, and talk about. — Valerie Schloredt
5. Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty From a Hospital Diary
When hospital staff in a chaotic urban ER left Timothy Snyder awaiting treatment for 17 hours, he came close to death, fading in and out of consciousness. Turns out his bloodstream was infected from a liver abscess that had been noted, but not treated, when his burst appendix was removed two weeks earlier at the same hospital. Friends asked why this eminent Yale historian hadn't called in a favor to get the medical attention he needed sooner. But leveraging privilege hadn't occurred to Snyder, best known for On Tyranny, his book about threats to democracy.
In the weeks that followed, as COVID-19 spread across the United States, Snyder battled his malady and made notes on ours — a medical system of extreme inequality, designed to maximize profit, that makes everyone sicker. The result is Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary. You've heard that health care is a human right. Snyder brings rage and empathy to his assertion that health is also necessary to liberty, and health care for all a path to real freedom. — Valerie Schloredt
6. The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart
Alicia Garza's new book is the perfect answer to the question: Where do I start when it comes to organizing and movement building? What can I do?
In The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart, Garza uses her own story to describe the ebbs and flows of movements: building a base, organizing around an issue, taking action, and creating positive change. Going from a sexual-health peer educator in high school to community work in the Bay Area to co-founding Black Lives Matter, possibly the largest social movement in U.S. history, Garza shares the victories and challenges she's experienced. Power, she writes, is the ability to affect the conditions of our own lives and the lives of others. Simply joining those who think like you is not how we gain power. "A movement is successful if it transforms the dynamics and relationships of power — from power being concentrated in the hands of a few to power being held by many." — Zenobia Jeffries Warfield
7. We Will Not Cancel Us
What happens when actions meant for good — to hold people who cause harm accountable — turn out harmful themselves? Leave it to adrienne maree brown to dive fearlessly and faithfully into perilous waters in her new short book We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice, the first in her Emergent Strategy Series. Instead of taking offense or simply shutting down, as many on the receiving end of call out and cancel culture have done, amb responded to critical comments to her blog post "Unthinkable Thoughts: Call Out Culture in the Age of COVID-19," in a loving, inquisitive, facilitating way and wrote a book about it.
"I have learned a lot more about some things I thought I knew," she writes "… I got clearer on the parts that were triggers for people… I homed in on what is within my expertise, and reaffirmed that celebrity activism is not my jam." We Will Not Cancel Us shares those lessons to help us all break the cycles of harm — be they intentional or unintentional. — Zenobia Jeffries Warfield
8. What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Fat
In a world where thinness reigns supreme and diet talk is as normal as talking about the weather, What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Fat is a much-needed addition to fat discourse. As a long-time fat activist, Aubrey Gordon seamlessly threads a personal narrative with data and history, examining the roots of anti-fat bias and the harm it causes. The book is accessible for folks who may not know much about anti-fatness. And for fat people, it's an incredibly validating and empowering read.
Particularly inspiring is Gordon's final chapter, in which she details her vision for a better, just, and equitable world. — Ayu Sutriasa
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
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By Kang-Chun Cheng
Modoc County lies in the far northeast corner of California, and most of its 10,000 residents rely on cattle herding, logging, or government jobs for employment. Rodeos and 4-H programs fill most families' calendars; massive belt buckles, blue jeans, and cowboy hats are common attire. Modoc's niche brand of American individualism stems from a free-spirited cowboy culture that imbues the local ranching conflict with wild horses.
To many, wild horses are icons of freedom and independence. While prevailing science says they are an invasive species that arrived with the Spanish conquistadors nearly a half-millennium ago, some say they are Indigenous to this continent. Regardless of their origins, more than 95,000 wild horses are roaming across public lands in the West. The population goal, based on available forage and water, is closer to 27,000. With no effective natural predators, unmanaged populations can double in four to five years (and triple in six to eight years).
These growing numbers have instigated and intensified ecological and social challenges in rural Western communities: Wild horses destroy fences, compete with cattle for grazing, alter native plant communities, affect wildlife behavior, and challenge watershed function.
They also cost the U.S. a lot of money. To manage wild horses, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have to cover both on-range populations and off-range holding costs. The estimated lifetime cost of keeping a wild horse in off-range pastures or holding facilities is $50,000 per animal. In 2019 alone, the bureau spent nearly $50 million caring for wild horses.
National wild horse advocates often love their equines from a distance; many are convinced that any sort of wild horse management is inhumane. But locals, including Native American populations, will tell you that they have struggled to coexist with the proliferation of horses for generations and that management is necessary. Ranchers insist that unchecked propagation of wild horses overruns the sagebrush landscape that their cattle graze on and share with various native and migratory animals and birds. At the same time, wild horse supporters push back against cattle ranchers' powerful economic interests.
Tensions over the management and allocation of resources in these regions run high. But solutions for assuaging these conflicts are already in play, including fertility control, roundups to adopt wild horses, and land acquisition. Long-term resolution will likely depend on a strategic combination of all three, along with a shared understanding among community members, public servants, and advocacy groups about what a healthy ecological balance looks like across the sagebrush landscape of the West.
The History of Horse Management
Before the 1950s, feral horses were largely unregulated in the U.S. They were released, grazed, captured, killed, sold, and otherwise managed by local inhabitants as they saw fit. Around that time, Velma Bronn Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie," started raising public awareness of the "perceived inhumane capture and treatment of free-ranging herds."
Thanks in part to Johnston's efforts, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1971. It declared that the animals "shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this, they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."
This act has been amended four times since its conception to accommodate the fluctuating opinions and conditions around maintaining a "thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands"—an admirable although highly subjective goal. Achieving it involves juggling competing interests: those of local residents, permanent grazers, hunters and fishers, advocacy groups, conservationists, and Indigenous tribes.
The Bureau of Land Management must manage these many conflicting interests. Modoc County's Devil's Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory epitomizes the challenges of this task. Officially deemed wild horse territory, the garden consists of 258,000 acres and is wholly within permitted livestock allotments. It is also home to wildlife such as cougar, antelope, migratory birds, and aquatic species dependent on delicate high-desert riparian areas.
The presence of wild horses has been shown to decrease native wildlife species diversity for both birds and mammals. Pronghorn antelope are an icon in Western grasslands, known for their annual 350-mile migration along historic routes estimated to be 5,800 years old. This awe-inspiring trek is one of the longest large-mammal migration corridors remaining in North America, but 75% of pronghorn migration routes have already been lost because of disturbances from the accelerated leasing of public lands and energy development. Horses also affect the pronghorn's yearly migrations by monopolizing watering holes, thus preventing native species from drinking.
Indigenous Support for Ecological Balance
Ken Sandusky, a public information officer who has worked for the Forest Service in Modoc County for 13 years, lives by his station's mission statement: "Caring for the Land and Serving People." In his work, Sandusky aims to include the broad range of stakeholders and often acts as a tribal liaison. Sandusky himself is a member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma, but as a Modoc native, is more culturally in touch with the local Klamath tribe.
When it comes to rangeland health, he says, there's a tangible split in what that actually means. "It depends on what you are measuring the outcome against," Sandusky explains. Range managers may perceive progress from a year-to-year basis, but to many Indigenous tribes, the baseline for "progress" goes back generations, to pre-contact times. "They have long memories," he says. "Tribes see damage that is a hundred-plus years in the making."
While individual perspectives on wild horses may vary among cattle ranchers, as a whole, herders are in favor of stricter wild-horse management to lessen grazing competition for their livestock. Indigenous tribes in Modoc, too, are largely supportive of wild horse management. But they also challenge the sustainability of current cattle grazing management. Local tribes collect wild onions, wild roses, grasses for basketry, and wood for bows and arrows—materials that are incontrovertibly affected by unmanaged grazing, regardless of the species.
Still, Sandusky, along with other public servants at the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, express concern about the dogma of wild horse advocates. "They tend to forget or intentionally ignore how they don't hold a monopoly over public opinion," he said. "Stakeholders can get myopic and good at keyhole storytelling."
A Willingness to Try New Things
"Americans don't know what's happening on these lands," says Suzanne Roy, the executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, an advocacy organization. The Bureau of Land Management, she says, "is run by and for the livestock industry. They come from a ranching background. The term 'rangeland' management itself illustrates how livestock management is the dominant perspective."
Roy is particularly concerned about how resources are being allocated: "Policies of land management agencies don't reflect the desires and interests of the public." To illustrate, most Americans associate public lands with national parks and environmental conservation; only 29% of respondents to a recent poll considered livestock grazing an acceptable use of those lands.
Grazing on public lands certainly aligns with the financial interests of cattle ranchers and helps explain why they insist on increased wild horse management. Cattle can graze on public lands for $1.35 per animal per month, while grazing on comparable private land costs ranchers $23 per animal per month (American taxpayer dollars make up the difference). To be fair, though, small-scale ranching would not be viable without public lands.
The campaign hopes to work toward more equitable resource allocation and improvements to overall habitats for horses and wildlife generally. "There are workable solutions to this issue," Roy says. "Common pushback from rangers is that new conservation strategies will 'destroy our way of life,' but change doesn't have to be bad."
The social conservatism intrinsic to human cultures makes change seem daunting and people reluctant to try new tactics even in the face of suboptimal systems. Roy uses a case in adjacent Marin County to illustrate: Until 2001, the county ran a USDA program focused on killing apex predators (e.g. coyotes, mountain lions, and cougars) in defense of livestock. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to take into account the science of predators. Killing one mountain lion, for example, creates a vacuum and will eventually lead to increased competition for this newly available territory. In 2001, Marin introduced a country-run program that promoted nonlethal methods such as fox lights, guard dogs, and fladry to deal with predator incidents while compensating ranchers for sheep and lambs lost to predation.
Ranchers were initially livid, concerned that bans on shooting and trapping hindered their rights, making them defenseless against livestock predation. But 15 years later, a majority agreed that this form of humane adaptive management has successfully reduced both livestock losses and the total number of predators. Ensuring its continued success, the program requires active participation on behalf of all stakeholders and long-term commitment from the local government for support.
As one fifth-generation sheepherder, Gowan Batiste, explained in an interview to the Ukiah Daily Journal, "Livestock is a food of desperation for predators; the more you harass them and make life difficult for them, the more likely they are going to come into conflict with humans."
Keeping Wild Horses in Check
When it comes to wild horses, many solutions are already in the works. Through annual autumn wild horse roundups, known as gathers, the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals has become one of the U.S.'s most successful adoption sites. The California Cattlemen's Association, a nonprofit trade association and organization popular among ranchers in Modoc, urges its members to support the wild horse gathers in Devils Garden, saying they are humane, good for the horses themselves (since competition for scarce water and forage resources may instigate aggression and herd violence), and necessary to support local ranchers and Modoc's agriculture-reliant economy.
Another popular solution for controlling wild horse populations is a fertility-control vaccine called PZP, given to female horses on the range using dart guns. Mares are tracked on foot or with game cameras while drones are used to locate more elusive herds. The PZP vaccine has been endorsed by the American Wild Horse Campaign as the "most promising strategy" for managing wild horses in their habitats and is also recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. Importantly, a dose of the vaccine only costs $30.
Lastly, land acquisition and grazing lease buyouts can promote equitable sharing of public lands and available forage. Acquiring key pieces of land adjacent to or within federally designated wild horse habitat areas can reduce conflicts over resource allocation.
A Global Search for Solutions
Pastoralists all over the world face similar land-use conflicts, despite huge variations in climate and culture. The ongoing situation across rural California resonates with that of Fulani cattle herders in Niger and Sami reindeer herders in the Arctic.
Herders everywhere are accused of having too many animals or are perceived as selfish and irresponsible by their own communities. Overgrazing is certainly an issue, but it's not simply the number of animals that matters: The amount of time animals spend in a certain area is critical to rangeland health. And in the context of such allegations, the ecological value of grazing is frequently omitted. Grazers, both wild and domestic, are key to regulating soil health and allowing for species diversity and coverage, as well as efficient carbon sequestration.
Part of the problem in these heated grazing debates is that moderate viewpoints are drowned out by extremist agendas—those who prioritize wild horse populations at all costs and those who want all of the horses gone, period. "The majority of people don't really have strong views about the horses," Sandusky says. "But the ones who do can get really into it." These unwavering views make it difficult to find compromises that account for all stakeholders.
"There is no biological problem, merely a social one," says professor Nicholas Tyler, a pastoralism expert at the University of Tromsø in northern Norway. Tyler maintains that in the case of horses and cattle in the West, as with so many others, the so-called equilibria argument is specious and quasi-biological. "Certainly a lot of horses will influence the species composition," he says. "Remove the horses, things change. Add horses, things change again. There is nothing magical about that."
But Tyler takes it one step further: "There never was, is, or will be a balance. There are shifting equilibria, which is something quite different," he says. "It is up to the community to decide which state of that equilibrium it prefers."
Regardless of one's views on what the ideal or preferred proportion of horses, cattle, and wildlife should be, holistic strategies could lead to increased cooperation and knowledge exchange as part of mitigating the current tension. One study examining the mutual dependence of extensive land-use and conservation management in Eastern Europe makes the case for a new profession: the "conservation herder."
This idea combines age-old traditional herding knowledge with a newfound awareness of herders' role in providing ecosystem services. Conservation herding could support pastoralists through the continued sale of their meat and milk production as well as government subsidies for biodiversity management.
Refreshing pasture management techniques and adapting traditional herding strategies to current rangeland vegetation conditions will provide the necessary backdrop for such solutions to take. Perhaps most importantly, reconciliation of a livelihood that has been traditionally judged as anterior to conservation causes may be exactly what a place such as Modoc needs to move forward. As a society, we tend to not address issues if there are no easy answers or if they cannot be solved by the next news or election cycle. Sandusky says: "Some of us don't have that choice."
Kang-Chun Cheng is a freelance environmental photojournalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. Her background in ecology, with a focus on community-based natural resource management and traditional knowledge, informs and enhances her perspectives as a photojournalist. She is fascinated by the shifting dynamics and values between society, culture, and nature, and use photography as a tool for storytelling. She has been documenting the impact of technology and climate change on traditional reindeer herding culture in Norway and Finland since 2017. She loves rock-climbing, cooking, and knitting. Her work has previously been published in Earth Island Journal, the Valley News, Northern Woodlands, China Africa Project, and others.
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
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By Isabella Garcia
September in Portland, Oregon, usually brings a slight chill to the air and an orange tinge to the leaves. This year, it brought smoke so thick it burned your throat and made your eyes strain to see more than 20 feet in front of you.
As historic wildfires burned more than 1 million acres and displaced more than 40,000 people in Oregon, photos of the red haze cloaking the Pacific Northwest were spotlighted on national newscasts and ogled on social media. Portland's air quality was the worst in the world for several days, peaking at an Air Quality Index of 486 on Sept. 13. In comparison, the mean AQI in September in Beijing, known for its smoggy skies, was 77. Just a year before, in September 2019, Portland enjoyed an average AQI more typical for the city: 22.
The hazardous air of the 2020 fires brought a new awareness of air quality issues in areas that don't normally have to think about them. It prompted fresh conversations about climate change, too: A Multnomah County news release called the wildfires a "full-on disaster siren that climate change is fully here."
But when the rain finally came on Sept. 19 and cleared the air, Portlanders rejoiced in the ability to breathe deeply again. The climate conversation and talk of air quality slowly but surely fell out of the news cycle, replaced with the election and the pandemic.
But what about the communities whose air is filled with dangerous emissions every day without the drama of an apocalyptic glow? What about the people who don't get the reprieve of a breath of fresh air? Poor air quality can be seen in metro areas across the U.S., but the distribution of that burden overwhelmingly falls on communities of color.
Communities in Texas and Michigan are home to some of the most polluted air in the country, but they are also home to groups that are fiercely fighting for — and making — change.
Houston is known as the energy capital of America, but that title comes with industrial refineries and chemical plants that release toxic emissions into the air. Having grown up in East Houston, near smokestacks and petrochemical plants, Bryan Parras knows this particular toxic air well. He now works for the Sierra Club as a healthy communities organizer and environmental justice advocate. His job is to identify local issues and leverage Sierra Club resources to address them most effectively.
"In some ways you're like a triage doctor, stopping the bleeding and dressing wounds," Parras explains. "In that process, you learn about the policy decisions that have led to things to begin with. You begin to understand the dynamics that people are dealing with, and you get a deeper grasp of the intersections of housing, environment, immigration status, and all these things."
Those intersections are clear in an ongoing case against Valero Energy, a midsize oil refinery that produces 235,000 barrels of oil and petroleum products per day in Houston's Manchester neighborhood. Valero applied for a permit to emit poisonous hydrogen cyanide in its refining process in March 2018. To fight back, Manchester community representatives are seeking party status during the permit hearings with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. According to the CDC, exposure to this chemical asphyxiant interferes with nearly every organ in the body, especially the brain, heart, and lungs, and can be fatal in high concentrations.
The toxin is better known in other contexts. Hydrogen cyanide has been used for lethal injection and is the primary component of Zyklon B, the gas used for mass murder in Nazi WWII gas chambers. Parras says Valero has long been emitting hydrogen cyanide into the air in the Manchester community, but the amount is unclear because the emission was only discovered, or revealed, after a change in EPA requirements during the Obama administration.
The permit request is for 512 tons of hydrogen cyanide per year. To put that number in context, community leaders and elected officials in Denver were appalled when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment imposed a new limit that allowed nearly 13 tons of hydrogen cyanide to be emitted in 2018.
The permit request in Houston caught the attention of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), an organization aiming to provide Texas communities with environmental and legislative expertise to advocate for environmental justice. The group's co-directors, Juan and Ana Parras, founded the group in 1995. Bryan Parras is their son and a member of the t.e.j.a.s. board of directors.
"[Valero] were releasing without a permit for over 10 years," Ana says. "These people are just being dumped upon."
Houstonians Can't Breathe
Manchester is one of Houston's oldest neighborhoods. It is surrounded on three sides by a chemical plant, synthetic rubber plant, oil refineries, and a car-crushing facility, all of which belly up to the Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest sea ports in the world. The fourth side is a train yard.
A 2019 study commissioned by Air Alliance Houston, an environmental advocacy organization, found that the city's polluting facilities are routinely clustered in and around communities where most of the residents are people of color, or where more than 30% of households are considered low-income. Manchester qualifies as both. As of 2015, 82% of Manchester residents are Hispanic, 14% are Black, and 3% are White. Some 41% of residents make $25,000 or less per year.
The Valero Energy plant is just two blocks from nearby residential homes — or "fence line communities" as Ana and Juan Parras describe them. A 2016 study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 90.2% of the Manchester population lives within 1 mile of at least one regulated industrial facility. The EPA estimates that each year, these types of facilities have about 150 catastrophic releases, which can be fires, explosions, or emissions that pose immediate and significant danger to people and the environment.
The same study also found the Manchester neighborhood's respiratory hazard index to be 2.56. That far exceeds the EPA's acceptable level, which is less than 1.0. In comparison, Portland, Oregon, has an average respiratory hazard index of 0.57.
T.e.j.a.s and two other community representatives have received standing in the administrative hearings for the Valero permit moving forward. But Ana Parras anticipates the case lasting well into 2021, and all the while, Valero continues to emit hydrogen cyanide unrestricted.
Pushing Back Against Discrimination
On a faster track is the Title VI language justice case t.e.j.a.s. filed against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in programs that receive federal assistance. Many of the notifications for the community hearings for the Valero case were in English only, even though 70% of Manchester residents speak Spanish at home. Also, because there weren't adequate translators, Spanish-speaking parents would bring their bilingual children — some as young as 7 years old — to the hearings to translate for them.
In this case, t.e.j.a.s. is asking that all notifications be translated into languages congruent with the community demographics, not just the first notification as stated under the current rule.
"In an unprecedented two weeks, we had a hearing," Ana says.
The case has the potential to change the national EPA rules, in addition to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rule.
"The system is hard to change," Juan says, but if t.e.j.a.s. and other organizers stop fighting these systemic environmental ills, he says, the fence line communities will suffer even greater losses. "Community is always first."
Environmental Justice Hot Spots
In Michigan, organizers with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition are using scientific research to find and calculate the impact of environmental racism in their state's fence line communities. For years, MEJC members had been showing up to permit hearings for industrial polluters, mobilizing and providing support for the various communities that were at risk. After a while, the coalition realized a flaw in the permitting system.
"We recognized that these permits were not being considered in relationship to each other," says Jamesa Johnson-Greer, the climate justice director at MEJC. "So, when an air permit is considered for nitrous oxide, for example, that's only considered for that one entity, and that's not considering the fact that these polluting facilities might by near other polluting facilities that are also emitting the same nitrous oxide." Those facilities are often concentrated in and around low-income neighborhoods of color.
The coalition commissioned a cumulative impact study by the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. Researchers assigned an environmental justice score for each census tract in the state based on social, demographic, and environmental data.
In 2019, the researchers reported hot spots of environmental injustice — communities around the state experiencing compounding impacts from 11 environmental factors, including the respiratory hazard index, diesel exposure, air toxics cancer risks, nearby hazardous waste facilities and regulated industrial facilities, as well as traffic proximity. Unsurprisingly, those hot spots were disproportionately clustered in communities of color that had higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and educational attainment (the percent of the population over 25 without a high school diploma) than the statewide average.
The report confirmed some of what MEJC already knew, such as the intense air pollution in southwest Detroit, particularly the 48217 ZIP code, which is surrounded by more than two dozen industrial polluting facilities. The environmental justice scores around Detroit were as high as 87 out of 100. But there were also surprises, according to Johnson-Greer, like the fact that Grand Rapids, Michigan, had the highest EJ score in the state: 93.99. And despite the egregious water issues in Flint, Genesee County, where the city is located, didn't even make the top 10% of census tracts.
"That actually influenced the way we did our work this year," Johnson-Greer says, "recognizing that we needed to go and talk to people in those areas who have been doing work around environmental justice or social justice and see what the issues were on the ground."
By developing relationships with environmental advocates in Grand Rapids, MEJC learned that the town has a long history of logging and paper mills, considered one of the most polluting industries in the world because of the high concentration of chemicals in the wastewater. Johnson-Greer says that recognizing the patterns and similarities across the EJ hot spots throughout the state can help highlight the weaknesses — and, thus, the starting points for equitable environmental transitions — in statewide and national environmental policies.
In particular, she points to the importance of "prioritizing those communities that are most vulnerable and recognizing that those are the communities that we need to start resourcing immediately, because they have probably also been most under-resourced and have also been left behind in past policies."
A Shift in the Collective Consciousness
For Bakeyah Nelson, the executive director of Air Alliance Houston, putting the most affected communities' needs first means using a diversity of tactics. Air Alliance Houston supports community interests by advocating for long-term legislative solutions, like developing industrial zoning laws in Houston, and by responding as-needed to threats against local communities' air quality, such as monitoring permits for new concrete batch plants so they can alert the nearby residents of their options to fight the permit.
"In advocacy, I would say there is no one size fits all," Nelson says. "It can be proactive; we can work with groups and coalitions to put forth state level legislation to try to prevent concrete batch plants from being placed near neighborhoods. But, on a day-to-day basis, it's more reactive in that we are tracking the permits; we see a permit and then we respond."
With limited time and resources, striking an effective balance of reactive and proactive responses can be a challenge, says Bryan Parras of the Sierra Club. But Parras is inspired by the community he serves, as well as the overall shift in public conversation he's seen around pollution and climate change over the past few years. While affluent White communities are typically untouched by environmental racism, they are now facing the unavoidable sign of climate change, as was the case with Portland in this year's wildfires. That can prompt powerful empathy and is moving the needle toward action on environmental justice.
"Despite all of the problems, you see some real change happening in the collective consciousness," Parras says. "There is a growth, a renaissance of activism and participation in civic life that is really beautiful to see."
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
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By Rena Priest
Storytellers are the makers of culture and the shapers of consciousness. The word "author" is from the Latin word auctus, which translates literally to "one who causes to grow." As storytellers, we plant beliefs that blossom into the structure of the world. In these times, we need a new structure — a narrative built on climate justice.
Think of all the books you've read, the movies you've seen, the male voices who've spoken to you from pages and screens. Think of times when athletes, celebrities, and fictional characters have been your heroes. Did they look like you?
Elvis Presley once said, "When I was a child … I was a dreamer. I read comic books, and I was the hero of the comic book. I saw movies, and I was the hero in the movie. So every dream I ever dreamed has come true a hundred times." He identified with heroes who looked like him. He grew up to be the King.
For millennia, storytellers have written about the hero's journey to celebrate men (particularly men of means or athletic ability) and to uphold the status quo. They become heroes by vanquishing villains who are almost always Brown, foreign, or feminine. The fight for climate justice requires a shift away from stories that elevate the White, male warrior or protector. In these times, the war they are fighting is not against the forces of evil. These supposed heroes today are fighting against the forces of change — much-needed change. Though the faces they're fighting are the same.
What if none of the heroes in books or movies ever looked like you? What if you always resembled the villain? What if you and everyone else in the world believed in that vision, so when you placed your Brown body in front of a wall of armored police, by default you became the villain and the police became the heroes? And when you cried out from your Brown face, "Water is life!" your message was not heard as a profound truth, but as defiant madness to be put down. When they tear gas you, turn fire hoses on you, and beat you on live TV, then take you to jail, society looks on and believes justice is being done. This is the tragedy we are living.
Climate protesters are collectively identified as agitators. At the same time, cops are seen as heroes based solely on their chosen occupation. Changing the mythology requires changing how we identify a hero.
As Winona LaDuke said, "Someone needs to explain to me why wanting clean drinking water makes you an activist, and why proposing to destroy water with chemical warfare doesn't make a corporation a terrorist." You may have seen this quote before. It's made the rounds on the internet, but it bears repeating. Every advertiser knows the power of repetition. If you have the money or leverage, you can repeat your message a hundred times an hour. You can repeat it until everyone gets it and buys what you're selling.
As a culture, we need to learn to celebrate climate defenders as heroes. We need stories that reflect the Brown, foreign, and female among us in a positive light so that their strength is passed on to those who might be inspired to become real heroes. This is how climate defenders, as the heroes they are, will truly save the world.
The "Indian" Story
Fifty years ago, the taming of the Wild West was among the most widely told stories on the planet. On any given weekend, a boy could turn on the TV and see his blue-eyed hero gun down Indians in the street. Classic movie networks rerun these stories in movie marathons so you can watch White men protecting their townsfolk from "savages" all day long. Repetition is how the cowboy and Indian story was sold to the generation of baby boomers who now govern.
Yes, it's fiction, but it's also the only representation of Indigenous identity that some people have encountered. Duncan McCue, creator of the journalist's guide to "Reporting in Indigenous Communities," was once told by a tribal elder that the only way an Indian would make news "is if he or she were one of the 4Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk, or dead."
To correct this, and to better steward this planet on which we depend, we must tell stories that celebrate Indigenous world views and values. And then we must repeat them, not just during Indigenous history month, but all day, every day, all week, every week, all year round, every year for decades, until the oversold fallacy that nature must be subdued and "settled" is dispelled and replaced by the truth that nature must be restored and protected.
Elevating Indigenous voices addresses the climate crisis because Indigenous issues are environmental issues, which are human rights issues. When tribes win fights against pipelines and coal trains, your rights to a healthy sustainable world are protected too. When the rights of nature are restored, your rights are restored too.
Scientists usually categorize Indigenous cultures as "hunter-gatherer" societies, but the truth is that before ecological disruption wrought by newcomers, we were more like permaculturists. The Earth cultivates a beautiful variety of sustenance. Before nature was "conquered," it provided a prosperous way of being, which required a civilized amount of effort together with a deep understanding of the behaviors of native flora and fauna. To be reliant on delicately balanced ecosystems requires an understanding that the consequences of disrupting the balance are hunger, or struggle, or death.
We fight to protect our treaties and the environment because our traditional stories tell us that we are a part of the environment and that people exist within a finite set of circumstances. Part of maintaining those circumstances is celebrating the heroic sacrifices of the beautiful plants and animals that give themselves as food. Yes, salmon as a collective can be heroes, too. And why not? They embody all the characteristics that qualify a hero as worthy of celebration.
Adventurous and brave, they swim from the shallows of their natal rivers out into the perils of the open ocean where their bodies soak up the rich nutrients of the sea. Persistent, resilient, and strong, they swim upstream against swift currents for hundreds of miles to return home to spawn and complete the cycle of life. When they die, the marine-derived nutrients are transferred from their bodies to all the animals, insects, soil, and plants of their original forest home. In this way, their hero's journey powerfully transforms barren inland landscapes into lush ecosystems. They are a keystone species, meaning without them, the whole system could collapse.
How can storytellers shift global perspectives to make us love salmon and pollinators and clean water more than we love John Wayne or Tony Stark? Keystone species are the heroes we need and should turn to.
People say the youth will solve the climate problem. But if we let matters play out as we wait for our children to create a cultural shift, we are shirking our responsibility to their future. We are also ignoring the risk that climate disasters will become so normalized in their lives that they may not feel a need to take up the mantle of an unsung climate hero, especially when they have only upholders of the status quo as role models.
Renowned Nisqually hero Billy Frank Jr. said, "We have to work together, all of us. … In the status quo we don't have long. We have to somewhere make a transition."
Collectively, we can embody a new type of hero that challenges mainstream iconography. We can begin by embracing mythologies aimed at exalting environmental sustainability and social equality in order to have heroes who truly do save the planet.
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
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By Heather Houser
Compost. Fly less. Reduce your meat consumption. Say no to plastic. These imperatives are familiar ones in the repertoire of individual actions to reduce a person's environmental impact. Don't have kids, or maybe just one. This climate action appears less frequently in that repertoire, but it's gaining currency as climate catastrophes mount. One study has shown that the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from having one fewer child in the United States is 20 times higher—yes 2000% greater—than the impact of lifestyle changes like those listed above.
Yet opponents are quick to accuse child-free for climate advocates of racism and nativism because their aims can resemble those of forced population control. In early 2019, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez set off a news avalanche for deeming it "legitimate" to ask whether it's "OK to still have children" given the dire predictions for planetary climate change. As a lightning rod for conservatives, AOC got outsized attention for an idea that's been circulating for decades, even centuries: making an ecologically minded choice to forgo reproduction.
Choice. That word introduces two knotty issues surrounding proposals to go child-free—or child-fewer—for climate. First, choice smuggles in the keyword in anti-abortion versus abortion-rights battles over reproductive liberties in the U.S. Second, it suggests that large-scale social and environmental changes rest on individuals or families acting alone. Limiting one's sights to individual choice passes over the structures within which those choices occur and the histories of gender and racial injustice that shape them—structures and histories that effectively prevent actual choice. The solution, then, lies in viewing reproductive justice through a framework that prioritizes bodily self-determination.
The Stickiness of Population
Only five years ago, there was minimal coverage of the child-free for climate movement. AOC is just one of many reasons it's lighting up now. New scientific analyses, scholarly debates, and social media conversations have shined a light on reproduction and climate. The influential Project Drawdown framework for climate mitigation includes a list of solutions ranked by their potential impact, two of which—educating girls and providing access to family planning—they project will have a greater combined impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions than almost all other climate solutions because of their effect on fertility rates.
In January 2020, 11,000 scientists signed onto a study that warned about the unfolding climate emergency. The authors prescribe steps in six sectors that can prevent irreversible planetary collapse, including that "the world population must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced—within a framework that ensures social integrity." The framework they propose includes universal access to family planning as well as education and equity for young women. (Other scientific takes on population-based climate actions are more skeptical about their immediate impact given the scale of fertility reductions needed to balance out longer lifespans.)
Even before 2020, a new movement was afoot to address climate by forgoing reproduction. Blythe Pepino, a British musician in her 30s, formed BirthStrike in 2018 to build a community of people—typically women-identified—who have opted not to reproduce in response to the ecological and social crises that climate change is creating. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, the group recognized the need to acknowledge the oppression that colors conversations about reproduction as it relates to climate and so reformed itself into a support group for those grieving parenthood. Their new stated goal is to channel that loss into action on climate justice.
Organizations such as Conceivable Future, however, continue to keep reproduction at the fore. Led by climate activists Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli, Conceivable Future is raising awareness about how the climate crisis affects "intimate choices" like reproduction. The Conceivable Future and now-defunct BirthStrike campaigns share ideological terrain with "population engineers," a group of bioethicists who forward policies for limiting the size of the global population through positive incentives like family planning classes and negative ones such as taxes on wealthy procreators.
In proposing specific policies rather than individual action, population engineers acknowledge the structures within which reproductive choices occur, everything from media influence to the tax code. Even with this shift to the structural, however, the racist, sexist, colonialist, and nativist legacies of the population question within environmentalism still plague child-free for climate. As do the historical and social injustices that constrain so-called choices.
Racism and Xenophobia in Environmentalism
This summer and fall, the climate crisis and its correlated catastrophes—extreme heat, flooding, wildfires—are intensifying alongside Black Lives Matter uprisings and the coronavirus health disparities among Black, Indigenous, and Latinx populations. This confluence has brought overdue attention to racism in environmentalism, as evidenced by the Audubon Society's recent reckoning with racial injustices in its past and present, including publicizing that its famed founder was a White supremacist and a slaveholder. The intersections of climate justice and racial justice have also come to the fore through studies of how Black communities are greatly harmed by hotter temperatures and through the popular intersectional environmentalist platform created by Leah Thomas, a young Black activist and "eco-communicator." To these reckonings we need to add the racism and xenophobia that have long characterized environmentally motivated population controls.
The New York Times recently exposed these sins in a profile of Cordelia Scaife May, showing how this heir to the Mellon fortune converted a love of birding into a network of anti-immigration, pro-population-control organizations that still influence politics today. In the 1960s May linked threatened birdlife to the rapidly expanding human population. May wasn't wrong to see and worry over this link: A host of human activities—from toxic agriculture and industry to sprawling settlements and light and noise pollution—decimate avian habitats and habits. May's anti-immigration approach, however, indicates how readily environmentalism can mutate into racist and xenophobic actions.
The Times investigators show that "protecting natural habitats and helping women prevent unplanned pregnancies merged over time into a single goal of preserving the environment by discouraging offspring altogether." Taken on its own, this goal resonates with Conceivable Future's and population engineers' aims. To be clear, this does not mean that today's child-free climate advocates are racist nativists. However, it does indicate how readily the affiliation arises because of the ugly history of forced population control.
And this history is hardly past. For example, race and class conflicts erupted around a population platform within the Sierra Club only 15 years ago. In 2004, a faction of club members took a page from May and argued that more people living in the U.S. meant more encroachment on less developed land and water. As with May's effort, this anti-immigration push amounted to "the greening of hate," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League, who entered the dispute when they found White supremacists lobbying for anti-immigration Sierra Club board candidates. A 2010 SPLC report firms up the connection between environmentalist intentions and racist agendas by explaining why White nationalist John Tanton infiltrated the club: "Using an organization perceived by the public as part of the liberal left would insulate nativists from charges of racism—charges that … would likely otherwise stick."
Charges of racism ultimately did stick to Tanton and his anti-immigration, pro-population-control allies. And they continue to stick in analyses of the child-free for climate movement today. Earlier this year, climate journalist Meehan Crist took up AOC's question of whether it's OK to have a child. In arriving at an answer (for her, yes), she affiliates child-free positions with "anti-feminist, racist and anti-human" values and with bad science. "Darker visions" proceed from this analysis, she writes, visions of those who believe "racial purity will save the planet. Closed borders. . . . Ecofascist death squads." The dark visions Crist spins from the child-free for climate question underscore how readily calls for reproductive limits touch the third rails of modern environmentalism: racism, eugenics, xenophobia, even death-dealing.
We get even closer to these third rails when we consider that the question of whether to reproduce is, for some people, no choice at all. Modern efforts to limit fertility, which ramped up after World War II, have targeted poor women in the Global South, and Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the U.S. using coercion and force. BIPOC reproductive justice advocates such as Loretta Ross have condemned dichotomous pro-abortion-rights versus anti-abortion politics for producing "anemic political analyses" that ignore the reality of forced sterilizations in prisons and the appallingly high maternal mortality rate for Black women in the U.S. These are all forms of what medical historian and ethicist Harriet Washington calls "medical apartheid."
This oppression has been used "as a means of controlling 'undesirable' populations—immigrants, people of color, poor people, unmarried mothers, the disabled, the mentally ill." Recent events confirm this isn't a historical anomaly. In September, accusations of nonconsensual hysterectomies and other procedures in an ICE detention center reestablished that, when it comes to women's health, "choice" comes with the privileges of race, class, and citizenship status.
Reproductive justice advocates offer a way through the rocky shoals of weighing whether to have children amid a climate crisis. The reproductive justice framework prioritizes bodily self-determination for people of all races, genders, classes, and sexualities, and it recognizes that, just as poverty and racism can impinge on that self-determination, so too can environmental degradation. As SisterSong, a "women of color reproductive justice collective" based in Atlanta, puts it, reproductive justice is "the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities." Because the climate crisis threatens the safety and sustainability of communities, it also threatens the right to bodily autonomy. Within this framework, reproduction is not about choice but about the systems that can make reproductive outcomes no choice at all.
When we debate climate actions, we often focus on feasibility, economics, and political and popular support. But grim histories also travel with climate proposals: histories of environmentalist racism and of reproductive violence against poor, BIPOC, and other marginalized people in the U.S. and abroad. This shouldn't squelch conversations about child-free for climate. We should take it seriously, but if it is to go from being an expression of individualist privilege to part of a wider debate, we must wrestle with the observation by science studies scholar Michelle Murphy that "race is the grammar and ghost of population." Only through nuanced attention to the histories, values, and associations attaching to climate actions can we hope to sustain dialogue about which ones—whether they be child-free or the Green New Deal—are just and efficacious in these critical times, while keeping reproduction and family part of the climate conversation.
Heather Houser writes on the environment, contemporary culture, and science and technology. She's an associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin, and her most recent book is Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data (Columbia University Press, 2020).
Reposted with permission from Yes! Magazine.
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By Agostino Pestroni
Take a dozen banana peels, wash them gently with a brush under running water, then chop them into small pieces. Next, blend the peels with five spoons of cacao and a cup of ice water. Once the lumps have been removed, place the mixture in a hot, buttered pan and stir it for five minutes. Let it cool down to thicken, and then roll the resulting dough into small spheres. Lastly, dip the balls into sesame or peanut powder, and you'll have a brigadeiro, an iconic Brazilian dessert.
But this is not the standard version of the sweet: It's a unique variant created by Regina Tchelly, a 39-year-old Brazilian chef and resident of Rio de Janeiro's Babilônia slum.
"I always wanted to be a chef, but not a normal one," Tchelly says.
In 2001, Tchelly moved from a small town in northeastern Brazil to the favelas, or slums, of Rio looking for a better future for her and her daughter. She initially worked as a housemaid, a common profession for women coming into the city from poorer areas. But the longer she shopped at the local markets, the more she grew disappointed by the amount of food being thrown out each day.
Back in her hometown, she had learned to use all parts of the fruits and vegetables she prepared, and she couldn't make peace with the wastefulness of the city. She knew that the thrown-away peels, seeds, and rinds held precious nutritional value. Tchelly has since worked to give a second life to food that would otherwise go to waste. She shows that repurposing food waste is not only a solution to the problem of access to healthy food, but also one remedy to help address a broken social system.
Regina Tchelly giving a talk about the impact of food on health in a Rio de Janeiro hospital. Favela Organica
Democratizing Real Food
The difficulty of making ends meet in rural areas of Brazil is one of the reasons for migration within the country. Small farmers leave their homes to crowd into the favelas of the megalopolis, where they can no longer afford the quality of food they used to produce on their land.
About 1.5 million people live in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, known as the Cidade maravilhosa, or city of wonder. Electricity, running water, and sanitation systems are often lacking in those informal settlements long neglected by the government, and life is tough for those who live in them. Food insecurity is one of the most significant divides between the favelas and wealthy areas of Rio: In the slums, many rely on government-subsidized schools, food banks, or junk food to feed their children.
It's a matter of affordability rather than supply, though. Food abounds in Brazil. A 2014 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization listed Brazil as the world's third-largest exporter of agricultural products. Yet 5 million people still suffer from malnutrition.
"My idea was to democratize real food, so to allow everybody to be able to access it," Tchelly says.
In 2011, Tchelly gave her first course on how to cook with food scraps to six other housekeepers in her slum, which led her to create a social enterprise called Favela Organica. Her goal was to teach others how to repurpose food waste produced by Rio's markets, and to learn how to grow produce on their balconies and in their yards. Tchelly's project relies on the idea of an integrated food cycle: growing food, utilizing it all, and creating compost with what's left to fertilize a garden.
A class on how to use juicing residue for skin care. Favela Organica
Favela Organica's work focuses on the cycle of life and uses yoga and meditation as part of its classes. Favela Organica
While Tchelly initially aimed at tackling food waste, her project soon turned into something more powerful. With the pandemic and the resulting food insecurity spreading widely within the crowded favelas, what Regina Tchelly ultimately provides is a way for people to gain dignity by making their own nutritious food. She's part of the Terra Madre network, a global movement of food producers, chefs, and academics who believe that through a holistic approach to food, communities affected by systemic social disparities can regain power over what they eat, which is the first step towards self-determination.
Innovating for Food Justice
The balcony of Favela Organica overlooks the famous Copacabana Beach. A small vegetable garden adds to the produce coming from local farmers who donate to Tchelly what they cannot sell. Tchelly's workplace is a forest of hanging pans and pots, with a cooking station for two people and a larger space where she gave free classes to 60 people at a time — until the pandemic hit. Now she offers her courses online.
Tchelly supports the free lessons for residents of the favela. She covers her costs with the income earned from her high-end catering services and the money she receives from giving talks around the world, or winning prizes such as the Prêmio Aliança Empreendedora from the Brazilian Entrepreneurial Alliance. Over the years, Tchelly has built up enough recognition for her work that, in 2016, she was invited to San Paolo to give a TEDx Talk. Since she began offering courses, Tchelly has taught some 30,000 people, mostly women, around Brazil how to regain power over the food they eat.
'Tabuli de broccoli,' a salad created by Tchelly made with broccoli stems. Favela Organica
The only requirement to attend Tchelly's classes is that attendees must develop a new recipe to bring to market from the widely available food scraps of Rio de Janeiro. Last year, Ivonides Silva, 54, joined one of the classes.
"When you go to the market, you spend 10 reais ($2) and use seeds, fruit, and everything else," Silva says. By cooking this way, nothing goes to waste, and Silva has been saving money on groceries.
As her final project, Silva transformed pumpkin rinds and seeds — parts of the fruit that are usually thrown away — into flour, which she then used to bake a cake. Her classmates liked it, so she began selling more cakes to neighbors and at the salon where she works as a hairdresser. She now sells about five cakes each month, which adds 240 reais ($42) to her income. If it wasn't for the pandemic, Silva says, she could sell many more.
"Tchelly gives us the tools to have the autonomy to create a small business to make some money," Silva says. In the slums of Rio de Janeiro, where people make on average 734 reais ($130) a month, the supplementary income from the sale of cakes is a welcome help.
Tchelly at a food bank in Curitiba, Brazil, teaching how to make pumpkin risotto. Favela Organica
Maria Beatriz Martins Costa, CEO of Green Rio, a network that advocates for fairer and better food, is fond of Tchelly's work, but told me that to have a greater impact, projects like Tchelly's need more public support. According to a report by the International Institute of Sustainable Development, limited access to food is not the result of lack of food availability, but of its unaffordability for many Brazilians. The Brazilian government has worked toward reducing social inequality in the past two decades with programs like the Zero Hunger Program, which aims to give all Brazilians enough good and nutritious food through a series of multi-sectoral public policies. Thanks to this program, the country was removed from the FAO's world hunger map in 2014.
But malnutrition problems remain, and the pandemic is accentuating them.
Growing one's own food can help, which is why Tchelly and many other activists around the world also teach students how to grow urban gardens.
"This kind of agriculture is important because it gives you support," says Costa, who sees urban gardens as another expression of family farming. She believes family farmers play an essential role in future food scenarios and are critical in diminishing food and social disparities. About 77% of Brazil's farmers are family farmers (as opposed to agribusinesses), but they receive only 36% of the total industry revenues. According to Costa, the difference in income between small and large farms is partly because of a lack of logistics to distribute products and infrastructures to scale up.
Tchelly teaching a class at a food bank in Curitiba, Brazil, on how to use all parts of the produce. Favela Organica
"Public policies are fundamental," Costa says. Over the past 20 years, Brazil has constructed a robust food security policy that includes Safra, a credit program for family farmers, and a program that pushed schools to buy food from local small farms. But in 2019, the current government, led by President Jair Bolsonaro, eliminated the Consea, Conselho Nacional de Segurança Alimentar e Nutricional — a body that allowed Brazilian civil society to have a say in the formulation of food policies — a move that many fear is the first step toward deconstructing the country's food security policy.
Still, Costa believes that Brazil, with all its flaws, is working toward issuing policies that promote family farmers. For example, the country's current secretary for Family Agriculture and Cooperation, Fernando Schwanke, has created the first bioeconomy plan for biodiversity and family farming. Such policies, combined with entrepreneurial efforts like Tchelly's, could brighten Brazil's food future.
"Regina Tchelly was a pioneer and game-changer and deserves all credit as being a forerunner fighting for a change in the food system," Costa says. Tchelly, with her daily fieldwork, represents a larger, and often unseen, global movement that focuses on the roots of nutrition inequalities. Together, they are working to provide access to fairer, cleaner, and better food for all.
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
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After decades on the political periphery, the climate movement is entering the mainstream in 2020, with young leaders at the fore. The Sunrise Movement now includes more than 400 local groups educating and advocating for political action on climate change. Countless students around the world have clearly communicated what's at stake for their futures, notably Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who just finished her yearlong school strike for climate. Youth activists have been praised for their flexible, big-picture thinking and ability to harness social media to deliver political wins, as Sunrise recently did for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey's primary campaign. They necessarily challenge the status quo.
"Every social movement in the U.S. that has been successful has always had strong youth and students out there leading the charge—and in most cases, leading the charge more aggressively and demanding actions over and beyond the general population," says Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. That's certainly true for climate, with youth demanding a radical transition away from fossil fuels on decidedly tighter timelines than their predecessors have advocated for. Pressure from youth such as Varshini Prakash, the co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, led Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden to endorse a bolder $2 trillion climate platform over the course of the campaign.
Sena Wazer, co-director of Sunrise Connecticut, describes how her work is often viewed by older activists: "The main response that I think many of us get from older folks is, 'Well, you're so inspirational and give me hope,' which is nice, but it ends up getting really frustrating, because we're not here to give you hope, you know? We're here to get something done."
Bullard says it's critical that we, as a society, allow youth's energy and optimism bubble to the top, and to empower young people to assume the leadership they're seeking. Having written more than a dozen books on environmental justice, he considers himself an elder in the movement. In contrast, Bullard calls young people "the tip of the spear," and says it's absolutely critical to have them out there "pushing hard for transformative change."
A Convergence of Issues
The unequal impacts of a changing climate have become extremely clear in 2020, so equity has come to the fore of climate conversations in every corner of the country. A global deadly pandemic continues to rage out of control in the U.S., heat waves are setting new temperature records, wildfires are scorching American Western states, and the hurricane season has already made it to the end of the alphabet for naming storms. In all cases, low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the impacts.
"Today, the scab is off, the ugly reality of injustice is hitting us up close and personal, made more realistic by this COVID pandemic," Bullard says.
This year the decidedly youthful focus on intersectionality is a big part of what defines the transformation of the climate movement. Climate is not just an environmental issue, according to youth activists. It's also a racial justice issue, an economic issue, and an access-to-health care issue.
"Environmental justice is really seeing the intersection of these issues," says Alex Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which aims to make environmental issues a priority for the state's elected leaders. The group is now focusing their efforts on the coming election and recently succeeded in persuading the state to allow absentee voting in November. "We want people to be safe when casting their vote," says Rodriguez, 26, whose fellow grassroots committee members range from age 16 to 60.
Rodriguez, who also serves on the equity and environmental justice working group for the Governor's Council on Climate Change, says, "We see our programmatic work as a way to help lawmakers see what they can do to improve the dignity of those suffering from environmental racism, systematic racism, and economic oppression."
Seeing the overlap and bringing these issues together is a strength that Bullard says was missing from the civil rights organizing he was involved with in the 1960s. He says 2020 is unique in many ways.
"The number of marchers is unprecedented, from different economic, ethnic, and racial groups—an awakening unlike any that I've seen on this Earth in over 70 years," Bullard says. "Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success."
Young and Old
But young people are one essential demographic among many when it comes to climate action. With all that's on the line for climate in the coming elections, up and down the ballot, collaboration becomes key. Bullard says previous generations of climate activists can now play the critical role of mentoring, assisting, and supporting. Standing with, not in front of, youth.
"Youth are leading us and taking on frontline activity," says Jayce Chiblow, the community engagement lead for Indigenous Climate Action, a Canadian organization that works for Indigenous-led climate justice solutions. But in doing so, she says many young Indigenous activists are experiencing the trauma of violence, getting arrested, and being taken away from their land. "All of our older people are supporting those youth: Elders, mentors, people trained in nonviolent action," Chiblow says. "The youth aren't alone."
That support can go a long way. "There's a lot of anger and a lot of fear, and that's understandable," says Wazer of Sunrise Connecticut. "I definitely feel those things, too, just considering the ways that our future has been threatened and kind of trashed by older generations."
Under the Trump administration, the number of environmental rollbacks alone can be disheartening, not to mention new drilling permits in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge going up for auction.
Wazer is frank about the risks of burnout, depression, and anxiety from the stress of it all, but draws inspiration from the example of the late U.S. representative and lifelong civil rights activist John Lewis. "That forgiveness and that ability to keep fighting and stay motivated … I think that that is something really powerful to learn from older generations."
An intergenerational approach can leverage the individual strengths of youth and older people in all their diversity.
"The elders hold our stories," says Chiblow, who is Anishinaabe from Garden River First Nation, Ontario. Those stories include lived experiences, culture, history, and generations of adapting to changes in climate. Such collective experience continues to inform Indigenous knowledge and connections to the land, as well as how people manage and govern themselves in relation to it. This knowledge is passed on through relationship-building and storytelling.
"Every time you hear that story, you're at a different point in your life, and you'll pick up something else … something new," Chiblow says.
Changes in perspectives that come with time and experience are among the reasons why intergenerational learning and coalitions are critical to the climate movement. To combine that living and learning is to expand the reach and meaning of the message exponentially. As part of her research for her master's degree, Chiblow brought together youth, community leaders, and knowledge keepers in her community to workshop climate action. "Those relationships are vital to keep that movement going," Chiblow says.
The value of intergenerational relationships resonates far beyond Indigenous cultures, too. Rick Lent, a member of Elders Climate Action in Massachusetts, says he is motivated to act for his granddaughter. He recounts the time she said to him, "Please tell me that there is something hopeful regarding the climate in our, in the future, because I'm going to be living with the repercussions, and I'm scared."
Lent takes that request seriously and says that working on behalf of future generations translates into effective messaging. "When you show up as a group of elders, and you're talking to your legislator, our pitch is, 'I'm not doing this for me. I'm doing this for my grandchildren.' So it gives you a whole different story about who you are and why you're doing this work."
Elders Climate Action has campaigned to pass a decarbonization plan in the Massachusetts legislature, which would set a net-zero emissions goal for 2050 and codify environmental justice in state law. With the November elections fast approaching, the group's focus is now on assuring everybody can vote safely. In some states, the group's chapters are pushing for voter registration and in others, ensuring people can vote by mail.
"We're going to be in a pandemic in this year's elections," Lent says, which poses risks to people's health, especially that of older voters. And because most poll workers, traditionally, have been seniors, Elders Climate Action is also encouraging youth to take up that mantle. "We need vote-by-mail," Lent says, "And we need more poll workers, younger poll workers."
The Unique Value Proposition of Elders
Older activists bring unique strengths to the table, according to gerontologist Mick Smyer, who designs strategies to move people from anxiety to action on climate. He calls himself "the aging whisperer to climate groups" and "the climate whisperer to aging groups." He is quick to point out that the learning can go in both directions.
"I think older adults are untapped resources," Smyer says. "Older adults bring several resources, one of which is their circles of influence. Just by virtue of having lived longer, older adults are going to have denser and richer networks," Smyer says. "The second is, when it comes to voting and civic engagement, older adults, as an age group, outperform all other age groups."
He uses the 2016 presidential election to illustrate his point: "The older age groups, 70% of them voted. Nobody [else] came close." He is cautious about making sweeping statements about older people broadly, but he says that ageism is alive and well. And that can deter the kind of collaboration that would beget necessary progress on climate action.
As the twin global patterns of an aging population and a changing climate continue arm in arm, Smyer says a good place for starting this work is within one's family.
"We each have that power to use in our circles of influence, particularly in our families, and we don't realize it," Smyer says. Whether it's via Zoom or FaceTime or a phone call or a chat in the living room, Smyer says, family members have a superpower: They will listen to each other, and they'll at least start the conversation.
"Intergenerational collaboration around climate issues, particularly in this election season, starts at home, and then goes to the polling booth," he says.
Speaking the Same Language
As an individual's network of family, friends, and connections becomes wider and more diverse, the more work will need to be done to have them all working toward the same goals. That is equally true for the climate movement at large.
In bridging the gaps among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, Bullard says, "Each generation will have some idiosyncrasy and uniqueness about it that another generation will not understand or comprehend."
If everybody in a group or institution is similar, then there's no need to explain a lot, Bullard says. There's usually a fair amount of shared knowledge and values. But the more diverse that group gets, in age, race, gender, or culture, he says, the greater the potential for making mistakes, stepping on people's culture, and causing pain. But the potential for learning also increases exponentially.
Chiblow says successful collaboration comes down to being able to speak in shared concepts. The term "justice," for example, is an English word that's hard to translate into the Anishinaabe language. Chiblow says that because her community sees itself as belonging to the land, and being part of the land, the Anishinaabe worldview, and therefore their understanding of justice, is necessarily more holistic than the mainstream.
"Indigenous people have been feeling [the effects of climate change] for so long," Chiblow says. Today, as wildfires rage across the West, the mantra of "I can't breathe" is being driven home on a grand scale. For better and worse, climate justice is finally a front-page story.
"It's affecting the broader society," Chiblow says. "We're finally at the turning point where we could start to make real change because … people are really starting to feel that urgency."
The urgency will be tantamount in the coming election. A lot is at stake, says Chiblow: "Incentives, funding, all-around agreement, and also the way we're able to manage our lands and ourselves as people."
Bullard, too, is insistent on urgency. "This election is one of the most important elections of a generation, because there's so many things at stake," he says. "We can't wait another 40 years on climate. We don't have that much time. We don't have 40 years to get justice."
Issues of climate justice will be on the ballot in state and local elections this fall, such as Nevada's proposed renewable energy standards and Louisiana's proposed disaster funding. And the topic has finally made it onto the national stage. Joe Biden called Trump a "climate arsonist" for not acting on or even admitting that the wildfires in California are clearly climate-related. The frequency and intensity of such disasters is indisputable.
"Hurricanes don't swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don't skip towns that voted a certain way," Biden said in a speech on Sept. 14. "The impacts of climate change don't pick and choose. That's because it's not a partisan phenomenon."
In many ways, the results of the upcoming elections will reflect the ways youth activists and older activists are able come to a common understanding of what climate justice means and what they want the future world to look like.
"There's a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there's a lot of energy that's stored in young people," Bullard says. "When you put those two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success."
BREANNA DRAXLER is the climate editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of environmental justice. An award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines, she won a 2020 National Magazine Award for a collaborative climate action guide that she published with Audubon Magazine. Breanna also writes, reports and edits for National Geographic online, Grist, and Audubon Magazine, among others. She serves as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She also has a Master's degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of Seattle, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. Her previous staff positions include editing at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine. She speaks English and French.
This story originally appeared in YES! Magazine and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Jazmin Murphy
Whenever you talk about race relations here in so-called "America," Indigenous communities [are] always the last ones on the rung," says Wanbli Wiyan Ka'win (Eagle Feather Woman), also known as Joye Braun, a front-line community organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network who fought against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. In defending the land so deeply beloved and cherished by her people, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Braun recounts how actively her community is excluded from environmental work and how she and her colleagues are blatantly silenced, even when working alongside allies. "We've had to really fight … to even have a seat at the table," she says.
The exclusion of Indigenous people and other non-White communities in environmental and conservation work is, unfortunately, nothing new. For centuries, conservation has been driven by Eurocentric, Judeo-Christian belief structures that emphasize a distinct separation of "Man" and "Nature" — an ideology that does not mesh well with many belief structures, including those belonging to Indigenous communities.
"Christianity has been largely built up around the idea of colonization," Braun says. Not only do these belief structures hold disproportionate power in environmental legislation, but they hold historical pains for those outside of Western religions. "Christianity was forced down our throats," Braun says. "Our reservations were divided up: 'OK this community … you can be Catholic. This community … you're Lutheran. This community … you're whatever.'"
Before the onset of such religion through colonialist conquests, the overwhelming consensus throughout the world was that human beings were just a small part of this natural world. Neither detached, nor superior. Of course, this "consensus" was not necessarily expressed in such a way that all groups adhered to the same belief structures. Yet, the underlying environmental ideology remains: Human beings are, to some extent, connected to all other living things on Earth, even the Earth itself. As European imperialism — and along with it, cultural genocide — began to take hold worldwide, so began the spread of the "Man versus Nature" dogma.
Today Braun's life is just one example of the ideological exclusion of non-European thought as it relates to wildlife and the natural world. Nonsubscribers are barred from participation in the protection of the world and nonhuman lives they hold so dear, which inhibits their environmental stewardship. But around the world, and especially in the United States, we are witnessing a historical push toward the dismantling of imperialism, the decentralization of power, and the welcoming of non-White, non-European values into conservation.
How Modern Conservation Upholds the Superiority of Humans
Christianity has deep, painful historical associations with the obsession of dominance. The same Bible that was used to enforce humans' domination over nature was also used to force Indigenous peoples to abandon their cultural truths for those more palatable to Europeans. This laid the foundation that continues to separate human life from nature to this day.
As the Bible states in Genesis, "Let [Man] have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over all the wild animals of the earth." We see echoes of this passage in the frameworks of many conservation objectives today, with concepts such as "creating" sustainable forests, "managing" wildlife populations, and "preserving" wilderness as a realm separate from that of humans. This reduces our perception of human connectivity to nonhuman life and to distance constituents from the objective recognition of Earth's intrinsic value.
Take one of the U.S.'s leading environmental organizations, for example. The National Park Service—a federal organization with well-known racist origins—has a mission statement that almost exclusively highlights the instrumental value of North America's natural lands: "The National Park Services preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations … to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resources conservation … throughout this country and the world."
Their mission is painfully anthropocentric, never mind that the very lands it aims to extend were stolen from Indigenous tribes who are now denied access. Missions such as these create a nigh impenetrable ideological barrier through which environmentalists of non-Christian cultures cannot pass.
Keeping POC Out of Conservation
These organizational goals exclude other faith (or non-faith) groups and have nurtured a hostile environment that disproportionately affects people of color. Historical experiences function to reinforce these impacts, further preventing people of color from exercising agency in conservation initiatives. For one, White constituents do not live with the same generational trauma that people of color do.
Experiences rooted in genocide and slavery, for example, still inform people's experience of the outdoors. Black people were forbidden to enter certain spaces owned by the National Park Service and other natural lands because of Jim Crow laws and deeply rooted racism, as pointed out by researchers Rachelle K. Gould and others. Many were lynched in these landscapes as well. Thus, for Black people, experiencing the outdoors was to put one's life on the line.
Simultaneously, "those in power [imposed] a particular concept of environment," Gould says, which denied Black people's experiences in natural habitats. Ideological disparities have likewise discouraged Indigenous agency in land management despite how profoundly they value land and wildlife. In the words of Paula Gunn Allen of the Laguna Pueblo, "The land is not really the place (separate from ourselves) where we act out the drama of our isolate destinies … It is not a matter of being 'close to nature'… The Earth is, in a very real sense, the same as our self (or selves)."
Inequality lies even in the evasiveness of definitions. "Google the word, 'environment' and see how far you need to scroll to see pictures of people in urban areas," Pomona College psychologist Adam Pearson says. "What counts as being an 'environmentalist?' And what counts as 'environmentalism?'" The vast majority of Americans believe that people of color do not feel strongly about environmental causes. Black, Latino, Asian, and White respondents in a 2018 survey overwhelmingly associated environmentalism with whiteness and underestimated environmental valuation in their own communities. Some 65% of Latin and 68% of Asian respondents self-identified as "environmentalists," compared to 50% of White respondents.
What Equal Opportunity Actually Looks Like
The public has long held onto the idea that the socioeconomic inequalities play a large role in a person of color's individual capacity to care for the environment when in fact, conservation organizations often create unequal socioeconomic barriers. People of color who try to enter professional roles in American conservation often encounter pay rates below the poverty line (and have done so for decades). That requires applicants to have enough accumulated wealth to be able to afford forgoing reasonable pay to "gain experience" — a luxury out of reach for many non-Whites because of massive racial wealth disparities that result from long-standing discrimination. Even those who fall in line with the Christian dogma are granted unequal access and compensation. Forty-nine percent of Black Christians, compared to 28% of White Christians, earn less than $30,000 annually, according to the Pew Research Center.
Ideological disparities have also had clear effects on Indigenous agency in land management. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services works to combat "wildlife damage," the idea that wildlife poses a threat not only to human health, safety, and property, but to natural resources as well. This concept is a stark contrast to many cultures' environmental values.
How would one expect an Indigenous person, a Buddhist, or a Muslim to feel welcome in such a space? The answer lies not only in dismantling millennia of imperialism, but also in the conscious invitation of non-White, non-European cultures into conservation.
According to Pearson, this requires combating stereotypes of environmentalists and creating enthusiasm for working in traditionally noninclusive spaces. Fulfilling these responsibilities requires taking an honest look at how ideological contrasts actively exclude people of color and perpetuate a negative feedback loop that overrepresents White people in environmental and conservation spaces.
"Inviting people to advise doesn't mean that they're gonna listen," Braun notes when discussing possible methods of increasing diversity in conservation. "I've seen that a lot. That's just them patting themselves on the back." She says real progress relies on human connection. "When you are facing one another, then you're forced to deal with things like the prejudices you carry on your back. You're forced to face the potential of racism. You're forced to face the economic divides."
Abandoning Exclusivity for Diverse Community-Based Management
As climate change becomes a mainstream concern, Indigenous knowledge can reveal truths not visible with White, Eurocentric approaches to conservation. Traditional ecological knowledge is central to monitoring and combating climatic change, according to a 2019 study in British Columbia and Alaska. "The region is a bellwether for biodiversity changes in coastal, forest, and montane environments," the authors write, and "an extremely dynamic and resilient social-ecological system where Indigenous Peoples have been adjusting to changing climate and biodiversity for millennia."
Nearly 100 Indigenous elders from communities along the Pacific Coast shared with researchers the changes they had observed in coho and sockeye salmon migration patterns and the effects of warming aquatic temperatures with great detail. They had similar observations of the Sitka black-tailed deer, highlighting that their migration patterns had been influenced by fluctuating factors such as rising temperatures and reduced snowfall. Ultimately, the researchers asserted that present environmental governance is far too rigid in its exclusivity of Indigenous knowledge and that "token community visits" must evolve to invite Native environmental observers and managers to share their knowledge to create tangible progress.
While these ideas remain nascent in much of American conservation, other countries provide examples of success. For decades, forests in Benin were exclusively owned and managed by state officials. They were supported (and thus, politically influenced) by major stakeholders including the Fondation Aide á l'Autonomie Tobé, a Swiss non-governmental organization. Though the foundation surely had the best interests of the Benin constituents in mind, their collaboration didn't represent the public's values. Those living within the Tobé-Kpobidon forest, for example, did not feel welcome in forest management, which led to unsustainable resource use and degradation of the land.
To establish newfound hope for sustainable forest management and community involvement, a team of researchers, led by Rodrigue Castro Gbedomon implemented a "community forestry approach" in 2016. This methodology aims to "alleviate poverty among forest users, empower them, and improve the condition of the forests." The idea was that the invitation for community involvement (and thus, agency in management decision-making processes) would nurture a sense of ownership in constituents, encouraging them toward more conservative use of forest resources, thereby creating a more sustainable existence for the forest.
The team consciously invited varying ideals and perspectives into management practices by interviewing elders and community leaders on their perspectives regarding the forest's health. Stakeholders included nongovernmental organization leaders, and traditional and religious authorities that led and guided the surrounding communities. Divinity priests were invited as well, representing deities revered by the locals, including Ogu (the god of iron), Tchankponon (the god of smallpox), Otchoumare (the god of the rainbow), and Nonon (the god of bees). First Settlers and local hunters were also given authority in this work, serving to extend the network of participation deeply into every facet of the residents surrounding and within the Tobé-Kpobidon forest.
This decentralization of power and integration of diverse belief structures was supported by the foundation, which provided the financial resources and the means for reinforcement of the constituents' chosen management policies. This included warning signs indicating forest boundaries and guards to manage entry into the area. The foundation also rewarded locals' involvement with a yearly stipend of 500,000 FCA ($1,000) to further encourage their continued dedication to conservation activities.
This new governance structure yielded phenomenal results. As community access to the forest expanded for medicinal gathering, hunting, beekeeping, and more, the forest's contribution to the local economy increased to make up more than 25% of the First Settlers' income. Also, the native flora experienced a "progressive evolution" alongside a healthy, low rate of human agricultural interference. (Cashew plantations, for example, expanded at only 0.4% annually). This community-focused approach continued to have positive effects on the forest in the years after the study.
The Tobé-Kpobidon Forest experimental management approach, along with the extensive foundation of evidence validating Indigenous knowledge, serve as a beacon of hope amid the darkness that looms over non-White, non-European demographics that yearn for a role in conservation initiatives. It demonstrates that the present ideological chasms that keep people of color out of conservation can be defeated and that such cultural victories powerfully serve both humans and the natural landscapes in which we reside.
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
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By Breanna Draxler
Climate change is the undercurrent that drives and shapes our lives in countless ways. Journalist Judith D. Schwartz sees the term as shorthand. "It's almost as if people think climate is this phenomenon, determined solely by CO2, as if we could turn a dial up or down," she tells me over the phone. "We are missing so much."
In her quest for climate solutions, Schwartz leans into the complexity of natural systems. As she and I talk, I come to imagine our climate as a beautiful series of overlapping Rube Goldberg-style cycles of carbon, water, nutrients, and energy. Those systems have been knocked out of alignment, sure, but as Schwartz sees it, repair is not impossible.
While mainstream environmentalism has historically pursued either preservation or conservation, Schwartz's new book, The Reindeer Chronicles (Chelsea Green 2020) explores a third option: regeneration. She looks at community efforts to restore ecosystems the world over. "We've been trained to believe that finding solutions is a job for the experts," she writes, but "Earth repair is a participatory sport: a grassroots response to evolving global crises."
Schwartz is worried that climate change conversations center around terrifying projections. "What do you do with that? Cower under the bed?" She says collapse is unlikely to be a one-shot meteorite, and that gives us some leeway. If we assume we're not always going to get things right, that leaves room for mistakes and the collective learning they bring. "We have so much more agency than we've been able to see," she says.
We may not know what the future climate is going to look like, and she acknowledges that not knowing is really hard. "But we've got to try," she says matter of factly. "We're here now … Just start."
Overcoming Cultural Myths
Schwartz comes to the topic of climate solutions with curiosity and a deep appreciation for science. You can hear it in the way she writes about processes like transpiration and decomposition: "The logic of nature is no secret; it is laid bare in every streambed, every handful of living soil, every spiderweb, if we bother to take a look. Its tale is told through accrual or retrenchment of biomass, biodiversity, and soil organic matter: the stuff of life."
She has a particular soft spot for soil health, sustainable grazing, and water retention—subjects on which she has written entire books. These pop up throughout The Reindeer Chronicles as she attends Ecosystem Restoration Camp in Spain and Cowgirl Camp in Eastern Washington. (Yes, it's a thing).
While I find the name off-putting, Schwartz uses her Cowgirl Camp experience as a springboard to discuss the critical role of women in agriculture. The word "farmer" often conjures an image of a man on a tractor, but she writes that a third of American farmers are women, and in the Midwest, it's closer to half.
"It's our cultural myths. It's our myth of the cowboy. It's our myth of what a farm is," Schwartz says. "There might be women involved, but you think about them as the supporting cast. We tend to look for heroes before we look for heroines."
By perpetuating the myth of the male farmer, Schwartz says, "We miss half of the imagination, insight, problem solving, intuition that's out there." And when it comes to climate change, we're going to need all we can get.
Naturalizing the Economy
Schwartz's writing is lyrical in its descriptions of systems normally not given such linguistic fanfare. When talking about the economy, she writes, "Its theme music—the vicissitudes of the market, job numbers, profits and losses—sets both melody and tone for newscasts and public debate, the inadvertent soundscape of contemporary life." She calls the disconnect between limitless growth and a finite planet "a society-wide exercise in fooling ourselves."
But rather than try to force the complexity of nature into existing financial structures—by giving value to resources and ecosystem services, for example—she writes of naturalizing the economy instead. This requires rethinking basic concepts we take for granted, like productivity, jobs, and meaningful work.
"There is no natural law that says profit must supersede other types of reward," she writes. "The truth is, we are what we measure—or at least our actions are largely determined by how we gauge success. What if environmental healing, social engagement, and a commitment to the future governed our companies and institutions, and therefore our work lives?"
A lot of the solutions in the book talk about connecting with the land. In some communities that access is collective, but I press her on the fact that access to land is incredibly inequitable. In the U.S., a lot of that has to do with historic and systemic racism. What role does justice have to play here, and how can that be factored into the conversation about ecological restoration?
"It plays a huge role," Schwartz says. "The people who are most at risk of losing work in this time are people of color and young people." Rather than try to shoehorn everybody back into a service economy that refuses to provide a living wage and requires working two or three jobs, she tells me, we can start investing in restoration.
She describes the magnitude of the potential benefits with enthusiasm: not just a wage, but tools that are going to be needed throughout the world—the capacity to grow food, manage landscapes, design dwellings. Not to mention the impacts on mental and physical health of being in natural spaces and eating healthy food.
Schwartz describes these as short-term signposts that give positive feedback on the long road to restoring ecosystems. Biodiversity inevitably bounces back, she says, and soil health, too. While she doesn't tackle the issue of racism head-on, she makes clear that healthy communities include people and the land.
"What can be more healing than to heal land?" she asks me.
A Local Land Ethic
The book is somewhat meandering in its quest for resilience. Schwartz's willingness to entertain a wide range of ideas and approaches is central to her message: "Once ideas on how to achieve what's assumed to be impossible are articulated, that goal is no longer impossible."
She describes different communal land management traditions—the Himma that long sustained shared grazing lands for Bedouin shepherds in Saudi Arabia, and ahupua'a, whereby each self-sustaining unit of shared land in Hawai'i included functional ecosystems that stretched from the mountains to the sea.
"I was very humbled by Indigenous knowledge, understanding myself as a newcomer on that land," she says. She admits she has a lot to learn but is excited about the prospect. I ask her how she views the relationship between Western science and traditional ecological knowledge.
"They can serve as reality checks for each other," she says. She goes on to explain how in Western culture, scientific inquiry is about breaking things apart to look at them in greater detail. But this reductive approach misses the way things fit into systems. In this way, she says science can disconnect people from the very nature they are trying to understand.
"Originally science was based on keen observation," she says. "That is part of getting us to knowledge." Ancient knowledge systems emphasize the connections between humans and nature—and see humans as part of larger whole. She says science today seems to be bearing that out more and more.
Still, that doesn't preclude the need for ancient knowledge as the climate rapidly changes. "Who better to be able to keenly observe those changes than people who have known what it has been?" she asks me. "To have a baseline and to know the various factors that will be changing?"
Alongside the understanding of place, Schwartz emphasizes the equally important respect for community. Her writing recognizes that climate change is not so much an environmental problem as a human problem.
"Running in the back of my mind, like the hum of those hovering bees, was the dawning realization that all the knowledge and technology needed to shift to a regenerative future—one marked by agriculture that builds soil carbon, retains water, produces nutrient-dense food, and revives land and communities—is already available," she writes. "It's only people that get in the way."
To come at it from another angle, as one of her sources puts it, "There is nothing wrong with the Earth."
In reporting the book, Schwartz reckons with the notion of imperialism and comes to realize the limits of information. Knowing more doesn't necessarily change minds, but feeling heard can. Building trust can. Overcoming fear can. She witnesses the power of consensus when decades-old feuds among ranchers in New Mexico dissipate with the formation of a collective vision for their future.
"Worst-case-scenario perseverating keeps everyone pumping stress hormones. This leaves us at once frozen and overwhelmed, unable to act or seek alternatives," she writes. "In short, we stuff our heads with worst possible outcomes and wonder why we get them."
In my favorite example from the book, from which the title is derived, Schwartz explores what some local Indigenous leaders have called "green colonialism" in northern Norway. She follows the efforts of an Indigenous reindeer herder to prevent the government from culling his animals. While Norway's government is considered among the most progressive in the world, it doesn't recognize the value of the grazing animals in climate change mitigation, instead investing in wind turbines on those very same lands. The herder's family considers reindeer herding a cultural bank for traditional language, handicraft, knowledge of the environment, and ecology. So the loss is far greater than the animals themselves. (Read an excerpt here.)
"This was not an easy book to write," Schwartz admits, and the world looks very different today than when she was writing it. Schwartz says the pandemic has given her permission to fall in love with the place where she is. She describes her home in southern Vermont as beautiful, though somewhat dismissively, saying that she always viewed the action as taking place somewhere else. Home was just the place she returned to after each of her reporting trips to write without distractions.
Now, though, she says she's experiencing a newfound presence and grounding right where she is, and realizing there's far more to discover than she previously acknowledged. "What was in the background has become foreground." I would venture a guess that her shifted perspective is not unique in these uncertain times, and that's just what she thinks we need.
Even in the small town of Bennington, Vermont, where she lives, she's seeing the effects. A "grow your own food" webinar was offered in June. While a successful local event might usually attract five people, 100 people signed up. She says this is evidence that people are aware of the need for local resilience.
"We've all got places," she says. "Places have their own ecological logic. Let's do what we can where we are and learn from each other." That idea of connecting with place and community is central to her worldview. "The 'we' who can address climate change is everybody," she says.
"There is no one size fits all for climate action." Schwartz says we need to protest oil companies and make art and grow healthy food and feed one another and, in her case, write—all using our respective skills to imagine a more resilient world.
Her argument, reinforced by 2020's stay-at-home orders, is to focus on restoring the functions of whatever ecosystem you call home. Rhetorically, she writes, "How many microclimates does it take to make a new climate?"
In her concluding chapter, Schwartz asks what people would do if restoring ecosystems was achievable. She then lists possible answers, among them: keeping water in the ground, jettisoning the cynicism, and dancing.
I can't help but push back on this. After all, if our planet is at a tipping point, don't we need to do more and at larger scales to actually achieve meaningful ecological restoration?
Her answer is perfect in its simplicity: "Tipping points go both ways." We may be on the brink of disaster, if we choose to dwell on the worst-case scenarios. But maybe, just maybe, if we focus on the best possible outcomes, we can tip the scales to bring best-case scenarios into being.
BREANNA DRAXLER is the climate editor at YES! She covers all things environmental.
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
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