‘Because, underneath all of this is the real truth we have been avoiding: climate change isn’t an issue to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilization wake-up call. A powerful message- spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts and extinctions- telling us that we need an entire new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet’.
Naomi Klein. This changes everything; Capitalism vs the Climate 2015.
Few weeks ago one of my best friends back home text me to let me know something, it was her son’s fifth birthday and she was planning the celebration, she had decided that she was going to ask the guests of the party to not bring any present to the kid and instead she was going to put some information about ACTAYS – my oldest sister’s NGO which fights against a rare disease named Tay-Sachs from which my little niece died two years ago before turning 6 – with the intention of inspiring people to donate the money they did not spend on presents to our cause. Yes, I’m very lucky to have friends like her, but this also gave me hope because this is exactly the change we need.
Why don’t we start right there? Changing our way to think, our lifestyles and behaviours, changing Black Fridays for Giving Tuesdays, it’s all about adopting new habits and traditions and give the new generations a better education, it’s all about an urgently needed ethical change in our minds structure, we need to find a new system based on values other than consumerism which only maximises profit and destroys the environment. Consumerism is the director of our societies, we have become slaves of goods and products, we have convinced ourselves that we need things in terms to reach what we call happiness or wealth-being and that happiness, like it or not, is completely based on material things. Material things that we can get at the cost of someone, our wealth is always the poverty of others; oil, coffee, palm oil, cotton, minerals or cocoa to mention but a few. We all know what is happening around the world, why something that obvious has not been fixed yet? I’m certainly not only talking about the environment but about the hunger, the slavery, the exploitation, the conflicts and wars; everything is more related than we all want to admit.
I’m not here trying to give a moral lesson to anyone, I don’t think I have earned that right, of course I know I haven’t. This is just a desperate call to everyone out there to ask you and try to convince you to join me in trying to become part of the solution and stop being part of the problem. Neither the fact of focusing my professional career on environmental issues, nor supporting environmental and charity organisations, or writing this blog absolve me from my responsibility as a global citizen, that one is way more than that, and so it’s yours. As a society as a whole we have been avoiding the truth for decades and not only allowing but helping governments and big corporations to plunder the Earth from its natural resources. The first time a world leader sounded the alarm about climate change was 51 years ago in 1965 when president Lyndon B. Johnson, after scientists warned the White House about their environmental concerns, in a special message to the Congress said ‘This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels‘. How longer are we going to wait? We have to stop looking the other way and face the reality in front of us, the inevitability doesn’t make it any less significant, we need to stop thinking that we cannot do anything about it, that the solution to tackle climate change is not in our hands, that they will always be poor people and wars, that this is the way the world works, it hasn’t to be like this. As Ban Kin Moon, UN Secretary General, said about a year ago ‘We are the first generation that can end poverty and the last generation that can stop climate change‘. Nevertheless, we have wasted so much time that we cannot do it gradually anymore, we need to act NOW!
Currently we are almost 7.5 billion of inhabitants in this planet, 55 billion tons of natural resources –biomass, fossil energy, metal and minerals- are extracted from the Earth every year and just consumed by about 3 billion of us. It is calculated that at the current rate we need 1.7 planets like this one to supply the resources and adsorb our waste but unfortunately we only have one. Furthermore, experts say that if every citizen of this planet would live like western people we would need up to 5 planets. We are exhausting natural eco-systems to the point that they are losing their biocapacity – their ability to adjust producing useful biological materials and absorbing carbon dioxide emissions – reaching critical thresholds beyond which they will no longer be able to recover. Since the mid-1980’s the world is running in what is called an ‘ecological debt‘ which means that humanity’s resource consumption and waste discharge has exceed the global biocapacity. As Dr Mathis Wackernagel – Global Footprint Network president – put it ‘The pressure humans are putting on the planet’s resources is like spending your annual salary three months before the year is over, and eating into savings year after year. Pretty soon you run out of savings’.
We live in a globalized and capitalist world based in free trade market agreements driven by market forces, by demand and supply. Looks complicate? Perhaps is not. We do have more power than corporations and governments because we are the real reason they are there, if we don’t demand they cannot supply, if we don’t vote they cannot decided. We just need to wake up, to care and work together, to understand that we can make this change, we can influence policy making, we can alter market forces, we can stop the worst effects of climate change and we can end poverty.
Iceland, a nation of only 332,529 inhabitants, which in 2008 suffered one of the largest financial meltdown in world’s history due to the lack of transparency and corruption, proved to us that people can have the power back over unfair systems and governments. Many initiatives were taken on the grassroots levels and thanks to them the government resigned, they wrote the world´s first crowd-sourced constitution, they prosecuted government officials and jailed bankers and in six years became one of the top economics performers in Europe. In Denmark and Germany people are reshaping the energy markets against the powerful oil and gas companies, the investments by ordinary citizens, farmers, and publically owned utilities have been key to make the transition to a greener economy in both countries which are leading the way to a energy 100% renewable.
Yes, your power as a citizen goes beyond the ballots, you as an individual can make the difference at every level from your house, your city, your country to the rest of the world. The actions and options you take in your daily life affect the lives of millions including yourself and everyone you know. Here are few ideas of what you can do to help not only reducing your footprint and improving you quality of life but also making of this a better and fairer world.
1. Keep informed, share and care. There is no more powerful tool to tackle climate change than understanding the problems and challenges that it brings to not only you but to the rest of the world. How can we possibly try to fix something if we do not know what part is broken? How can we persuade anyone to join us if we do not have arguments to convince them? Follow the news, be aware about the world you live in, one of the core problems in our democracies is that too many people don’t care about politics or law-making, we live in the age of technology where thanks to the Internet we can chose independent and trustful sources of news and information. They say ‘sharing is caring’, talking about climate change with your family, your friends or your work mates helps, it does, and sharing information to raise awareness in your social networks too, spread the word! No, you’re not going to save the planet just doing this but changes require an educational process and awareness is the first step to undertake them.
2. Implement the waste hierarchy in your daily life: Eliminate, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Here we need to assume that this does not mean that our liability ends reusing and recycling paper or maybe some plastic bottles, in fact recycling should be the last solution, the chain must start from the very beginning, eliminate and reduce. Thanks to the compulsive consumerism in our societies we have enter in a ‘World Waste Crisis’. Every year we create 2.12 billion of trash globally, 99% of the things we buy have a life of 6 months. Waste is harmful for human’s health, harmful for the environment and even more harmful for poor countries which unfairly have become the landfill of the rich countries whims. Countries illegally export millions of tones of e-waste annually to African nations like Ghana, polluting their land, water and air. Our uncontrollable obsession of having everything and, of course, always getting the last season/version- clothes, technologies, cars, etc. – has put us in this situation and it is estimated that the amount of waste generated by humans globally will more than triple by 2100 according to Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez, senior director for the World Bank’s Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice. So first, before buying anything we need to ask ourselves; Do I really need this? Where does it comes from? Where is it going to end? Eliminate and reduce your waste, join the Zero Waste Movement!
3. Plastic free life. Plastic is the most polluting material we the humans have created. Plastic is made from polymers such us polyethylene, polystyrene, polyester, or PVC, derived from petrochemicals that take hundreds of years to degrade. Every bit of plastic that has been produced in the world is still here. Due to their relatively low cost, ease of manufacture, properties and many applications plastic has invaded our lives; we have become plasticholics. According to data published by the UNEP, we produce more than 300 million tons of plastic per year, of which 100 only in Europe and the USA – about 50 million tons each one – and 62 in China. Eco-watch published recently that 50% of this plastic is used just once and then thrown away. All this plastic ends up in landfills and more than 8 million tons find its way to the oceans. Plastic spoils our groundwater, attracts other pollutants such as additives, poison our food chain, affects human health and threatens wildlife. There are many measures that we can adopt in our daily life to change this and the most urgent one is to refuse single use disposable plastic; items like plastic bottles, cups, cutlery, bags, straws, balloons, plastic wrap, little plastic pods for modern coffee machines. There are also items that we can avoid such as CD’s and DVD’s, chewing gums, wash soaps and body scrubs that contains exfoliating microbeads -tiny dots of plastics – and many more. Furthermore, a good way to reduce packaging and single use items made of plastic, paper & cardboard u other packaging materials are taking your own shopping bag, water bottle and food container when you go shopping, buying products that use less packaging or buying on bulk. If every package could be reduced by 5% it would prevent over 600.000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. By doing this you wouldn’t be helping only the environment but also your own pocket, all you have to do is plan in advance.
4. Reduce your food waste. Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year – approximately 1.3 billion tonnes – gets lost or wasted according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) while 795 million people in the world, or one in nine, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in the period 2014-2016. This huge loss of resources used during the whole production process could be reduced by all of us, by shopping smarter and planning in advance. In a study performed by British researcher Elliot Woolley, who teaches about sustainable manufacturing at Loughborough University, it is estimated that people in the United States and other developed countries throw away as much as half of the food they purchase. Think, how many times you have to throw away food because you didn’t really needed it? Moreover, you can help to eliminate supermarket spoilage by buying those products that maybe are not perfect in the outside but its quality is and they are rejected and wasted only due to aesthetic reasons, you could also ask supermarkets in your area to donate unsold food to charities and food banks or join initiatives like Eat United, comamosjuntos.org
5. Go vegetarian or vegan. Eliminating animal product consumption has three main irrefutable benefits: you’re protecting animas rights, protecting the environment and adopting a healthier diet. The impacts of animal farming in the environment are many and the overwhelming numbers are there. In a report named ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow‘ the FAO stated that the livestock industry contributes 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, even more than transport sector with a 14%. Nevertheless, in another report by the World Bank, ‘Livestock and Climate Change‘, experts affirmed that the industry is actually responsible for a staggering 51% of global GHG emissions; in this case it would be the most polluting activity being electricity and heat production 25%, Industry 21% and transport 14% by data published by IPCC 2014. According to the first report, Livestock’s Long Shadow by the FAO, these emissions account for 2.2 billion tons of CO2 but also 65% of global emissions of N2O – a gas 296 times the global warming potential of CO2 which stays in the atmosphere for approximately 150 years – and 35% of total anthropogenic CH4 emissions, a gas shorter-lived but 25-100 times more destructive that the famous CO2. But this is not all, animal agriculture is responsible for 20-33% of fresh water consumption in the world and 45% of earth’s total land occupation and it is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution and habitat destruction. Livestock also has terrible consequences in a major problem as it is the deforestation of the Earth, the leading causes of rainforest destruction are livestock and feedcrops, 136 million of rainforest acres have been cleared for animal agriculture. The US and Europe alike use major part of their land in highly inefficient livestock farming systems using quality cropland to grow animal feeds instead of human food. In terms of fishing industry, three quarters of the world fisheries are exploited or depleted, according to a report published by National Geographic ‘Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services‘ at this rate of consumption we could see oceans fishless by 2048; scientist estimates that 650.000 whales, dolphins and seals are killed every year by fishing vessels and between 40-50 millions of sharks by fishing nets.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, USDA/ERS, a vegetarian’s footprint is about two thirds of the average and almost half that of a meat lover, person who eats meat almost every day. For a vegan the footprint is about 60% lower. Pescatarians, who eat fish and sea food but no meat from land animals create about 2.5% more food-related emissions than vegetarians.
If you want more reasons, facts or inspiration I recommend these few documentaries: Earthlings, Food Inc. and COWSPIRACY.
6. Reduce meat and fish consumption. If you cannot do the above at least try to reduce your consumption of both, especially eat less read meat. The popular red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more GHG’s emissions. As Professor Tim Benton at the University of Leeds put it ‘The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat’. Reducing meat consumption in frequency and quantity is foundamental to tackle climate change, according to a recent article on BBC news one study found that just following the World Health Organization’s (WHO) dietary recommendations would cut the UK’s footprint down in 17%.
7. Support renewable energies and energy efficient products. Purchase renewable energies to heat your water, your house and supply your electricity, most energy suppliers now offer this source of power at the same or even lower prices, if more and more people take this option it will drive even faster the change in the global energy market that we need to end with the polluting and harmful fossil fuel industry. Be sensible about your household energy usage; turn off lights and all electrical items when not in use, avoid or reduce heaters or air conditioning usage, make sure your house is insulated, buy energy and water efficient appliances – bulbs, wash machines, ovens, dishwashers, etc. – they can be a little more expensive but they will save you a lot of money in the long run. Collect the water you use and reuse it for instance to wash your car or water your plants.
8. Reduce the use of fossil fuelled transportation. The world is moving towards fossil-free transport and travel, many initiatives have been pledge by countries around the world to comply with the Paris Agreement such as the electrification in the transport sector using renewable energies and the use of biofuels. In the meantime there are also options than we can take to help on this such as make smarter use of transport, try to use your car less or share it with friends or work mates to commute to work or travel, use a bicycle or even walk, use public transport or buy an electric car or motorbike. If you have to travel domestic long distances using public coach or train are always the less polluting option rather than cars or flying.
9. Practice responsible and ethical consumerism. This one is about purchasing products and services avoiding those that have a negative impact on the society or the environment. There are many resources on internet where you can find green buying guides like ethicalconsumer.org. By buying local food in local business you’re helping not only the local economy but also the environment avoiding the product miles and challenging corporate power. Look for fair trade and environmentally friendly products that have been sustainably produced and free from slavery, especially child labor. Buy second hand products or from charities or brands with good initiatives such as the one that Patagonia brand recently had donating 100% of their Black Friday sales to the environment. Avoid big corporations and polluters – Alcoa, Dupont, Bayern, Shell, BASF, Monsanto, Exxon Mobile – you can find a list of the top 100 air polluters developed by the University of Massachusetts in their website. Join the movement People versus Big Poluters.
10. Avoid fast fashion, buy less and buy better. Fast fashion is one of the main responsible for child slavery, 50% of fast fashion is made from polyester a synthetic fabric not degradable made from plastic. And not only that, the real problem is the overconsumption and the vast amount of resources in its production such as chemicals and water and the unsafe conditions for workers during manufacturing processes. 150 billion units of clothing are made every year, fast fashion has created a cycle of consumption and discarding, on average we only wear each article of clothing 7 times before we dispose of it.
11. Reduce pharmaceutical drugs consumption and waste. Prescription drugs are highly pollutant due to their manufacturing processes but also to the waste created by expired or not consumed medications. Environmental contamination by pharmaceuticals is reaching alarming levels and rising, people continue to increase the use of prescription drugs even when they don’t really need them. Try to reduce your consumption of these substances or replace it for medicinal plants and herbs instead of chemicals. Dispose of your expired or unused medicines in your local pharmacy.
12. Become an active citizen in your local area or community. Volunteer in social and environmental issues, organize a clean-up beach or a reforestation day, raise awareness about environmental matters such as waste management, overconsumption or deforestation, educate youth and children in green thinking and sustainable practices because they really are the agents of change that will make it sustainable.
13. Lobby your local administration to take action in local and global issues, to improve waste management systems, to ban plastic single use items, to divest from fossil fuels and invest in natural resources, to comply with the Paris Agreement making the transition to greener and sustainable cities, to reduce defence spending or stop funding wars and conflict, to remain them that we are here, that we are watching and they cannot relax until next elections.
14. VOTE responsibly. Care about politics, get to know your options, understand the programs of the different parties and vote for politician & parties that work for the people and not for the big banks and corporations, who think about citizens and not about the markets or their own profit. I know this one seems a bit hopeless after a year of Brexits and Trumps but we can learn really good lessons from the mistakes already made to create a better future.
15. Join and follow local or global organizations and movements demanding climate justice or fighting for good causes, to be updated, support their campaigns and understand what you can do to help. Some global movement I follow are Greenpeace, 350.org, People´s Climate Movement, Save the Arctic, FrackOff, Divest fossil fuels, Global Citizen, to mention but a few. Thanks to the Greenpeace global campaign Save the Arctic that started in 2012, with a petition signed by more than 3 million people around the world, 3 days ago Trudeau and Obama declared the Arctic free from drilling an historical people’s victory.
16. Protest. Yes PROTEST! Always peacefully, take the streets to demand action because citizen demonstration have been the most powerful tools the human history has got to achieve fundamental social and civil rights. From historical ones as black and women’s vote, the independence of countries from colonialism rule such as Gandhi’s Salt March or the Singing Revolution of the Baltic countries, to the Alexanderplatz Demonstration that led the fall of the Berlin wall and German reunification, the Water Wars in Cochabamba Bolivia that reversed the privatisation of the water system, Iceland´s Pots and Pans Revolution of 2009, to current demonstrations such as the on-going protest in Standing Rock that after months stopped the construction of the pipeline becoming an environmental and cultural flash point.
In a world where Brexits and Trumps win, where countries are bombed for oil and gas pipelines, where human and nature rights are less important than profits, and corporations have more power than governments, activism cannot slow down. Now more than ever we need to get involved to improve our societies and save the planet from the worst effects of climate change.
I’m writing this post from Costa Rica the country that abolished military to invest in education, environmental protection and cultural preservation, the country that is already making the transition to a green economy running 100% on renewable energies for long periods, the greenest and happiest country in the world according to Happyplanetindex.org where citizen’s ecological footprint is less than a quarter of the size of citizens from the US or Europe, the country that give us hope and tell us that a peaceful and sustainable world is possible, is up to you if you want to help and fight for it.
Pura Vida and Happy Green & Sustainable New Year to everyone everywhere!