Sunday, April 26, 2009

10 Big, Really Hard Things We Can Do to Save the Planet

By World Changing Team

Article Photo

Traditionally, this is a day devoted to making green accessible to all. It's a day when each of us is invited to take small, individual steps toward reducing our carbon footprints, limiting our waste, or restoring the environment. See how easy it is – and how fun – to do your part to save the planet? Whether Earth Day does any good is a subject of some real debate around here.

Admittedly, this year's goals from the Earth Day Network (EDN) show that the holiday might be heading in the right direction. The EDN calls for action and civic engagement toward renewable energy, sustainable consumption and green jobs … and nods to the approaching COP15.

But in general, Earth Day is still being used primarily to sell crap that won't make a difference. Our inboxes were still flooded with press announcements touting Earth Day solar bikinis; Earth Day buy-this-thing-and-we'll-plant-a-tree promotions; Earth Day specials on a greener SUV.

There are no simple steps worth caring about. We'll only head off disaster by taking steps -- together -- that are massive, societal and thorough. Most of what needs to be done involves political engagement, systems redesign, and cultural change. It can't be done in an afternoon and then forgotten about.

So screw the little things. Here are 10 big, difficult, world-changing concepts we can get behind.

Czech crowds cheered for U.S. President Barack Obama's recent announcement that America must lead the charge to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide. But no matter which nation or alliance takes the helm, reducing the threat of weapons of mass destruction is a critical part of sustainability. Simply put, nuclear weapons have no place in a bright green future.

Problems This Helps Solve: Nuclear warheads are like the anti-resilience. They don't make us safer; they actually make us brittle. And pouring enormous amounts of money and natural resources into mutually-assured destruction seems like an outdated model for peacekeeping on a finite planet.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
A New Military Mission: Clean Energy
The Future of the U.S. Military: An Interview with Thomas P.M. Barnett
The Unexpected Nature of Peace
Nuclear Energy: Not a Climate Change Solution?

In order to have a resilient and peaceful planet, we must first meet the basic needs of all the people who live here. Each person deserves clean water, adequate sanitation, and access to health care. But building this basic foundation will also require stability of a more intangible kind, including giving every person access to education, protecting civil rights around the globe, and putting an end to human servitude. As a society, we've outlined the plan in various ways, most notably in the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals. And we have the means to do it in this century, through advances in community empowerment, sustainable development and microlending programs.

Problems This Helps Solve: The difficulties the bottom billion people face don't just waste their human potential; they also undermine global public health, accelerate habitat destruction, worsen the destabilizing effects of violence, and drag down failing states. In a very real sense, the problems of the bottom billion are problems for us all, and tied into every other problem we want to solve.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Principle 9: Social Entrepreneurship/Base Of the Pyramid
Principle 17: Environmental Justice
Sustainable Development and Social Well-Being
Ending Poverty

We write often about transparency, which is part of the foundation for a just, equitable, sustainable and democratic future. This involves transparency and accountability in both business and government. It also includes tools that let us easily see and understand the backstory of the products in our lives, from the homes we live in to the food on our plates. Open-source approaches are excellent tools for promoting transparency, since these collaborative problem-solving systems increasingly eradicate hidden agendas and exclusivity.

Problems This Helps Solve: Lack of knowledge and lack of access are two of the biggest factors keeping today's communities locked in repetitive, destructive cycles. In politics, opacity makes it easy for leaders to deceive citizens and serve special interests. In the business world, opacity lets corporations participate actively in corruption and ecological destruction, while greenwashing the effects of their actions. Exposing political and business practices to the sunlight of pubic scrutiny can transform the possible.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Corporate Political Transparency: The Green Business Rating We Really Need
The Wall Street Crowd and the Transparency Revolution
Tools for Open Government
Principle 1: The Backstory
Principle 6: Transparency

Although no one wants to live in fear of uncontrollable, unforeseen disasters, it's hard to argue against having a well thought out emergency preparedness plan. These plans help people know what do to when a disaster strikes, decreasing the level of panic and improving the probability that more people will escape unharmed. On a small scale, families and neighbors can communicate and coordinate with each other to create plans that provide food and shelter for their communities. And on a larger scale, states and nations can create response plans that effectively deliver aid, as well as short- and long-term shelter solutions.

Problems This Helps Solve: Living in the age of climate change means that natural disasters will happen more frequently and with more ferocity than ever before. Applying climate foresight (and anticipating other potential problems) gives us the capacity to build resilience into the systems we're building, maximizing the chances that our sustainability is rugged.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Applying Climate Foresight
Learning From The Earthquake
Worldchanging Interview: Thomas Homer-Dixon
Environmental Refugees

Equality for women is more than a justice issue. By giving women equal rights we also help create a more sustainable world. Research shows that women who have access to education and rights over their own bodies choose to have fewer children, who they can give more to. Overpopulation is a serious issue, with huge implications for problems like climate change. By giving women rights we are investing in what Kim Stanley Robinson calls the some of the best climate change technology available today.

Problems This Helps Solve: Empowering women through education, health care and economic opportunity is the number one way to stabilize and eventually decrease overpopulation, a “driving force behind some of today's most serious problems, including climate change and rising food prices," according to Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin. Having the human numbers stop growing -- reaching peak population -- at the earliest humanely possible moment will make nearly every other problem we face easier to solve.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
More Choice for Women Means More Sustainability
Peak Population and Generation X
Interview: Kavita Ramdas, Global Fund for Women

One of the most readily available solutions for creating a more sustainable world is also one that we might have the most personal control over: our diets. We can greatly decrease our environmental and social footprints by eating locally, organically and mostly meat and dairy free (according to the U.N. report Livestock’s Long Shadow, livestock produce more greenhouse gases than all of the world's transport combined). But in order for more people to be able to choose better options, we also need to transform the food system. That means not only transparency innovations, such as labels and codes that tell you where your food came from and how it was produced, but also economic and regulatory support for a transformed relationship between farmers, food sellers and eaters.

Problems This Helps Solve: Better diets are critical to increasing global food security. But better farming and herding practices are also vital to preserving natural habitats, ecosystem services, clean water and healthy topsoil. Agriculture is one of the largest drivers of planetary destruction, and better diets can drive forward the search for more sustainable agricultural systems.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Cows Aren't Part of a Climate-Healthy Diet, Study Says
The Food Less Traveled
Eating Really Local
Food Carbon, Corporate Farming and Transnational Community-Supported Agriculture
Agricultural Sustainability = Agricultural Productivity

Scientists estimate that our planet is home to somewhere between 10 and 100 million species. We've described only 1.8 million: the rest are yet to be discovered. Today, scientists are using new techniques and tools to discover and name more new species than at any other time in taxonomic history. Ironically this “Age of Discovery” is simultaneously the Sixth Extinction, the largest mass-extinction since the Death of the Dinosaurs.

Problems This Helps Solve: The diversity of life offers dividends that are almost impossible to reckon. Discovering and documenting the planet's biodiversity now is essential, both because discovery sometimes leads to protection and because once species are gone, they're gone forever. By documenting all life now, we can better understand the web of life around us, and by making it open and accessible, we can help to cultivate an appreciation for its existence and leave a priceless legacy for future generations.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Biodiversity Triage and Frozen Zooz The Culture of Extinction
What the Yeti Crab Has to Teach Us
Understanding Extinction
Discovering to Recover: The Age of Species Discovery and the Sixth Extinction

We need a global treaty that holds all players accountable to decreasing their carbon emissions. This treaty must decrease global carbon levels to 350 parts per million by 2080, if we are to avoid a series of global tipping points that will push us over the edge and make life on this planet unbearable for the majority of life on Earth.

Problems This Helps Solve: An effective climate treaty will help create global accountability for decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions to a level that allows humans to remain on the Earth. As we've said before carbon-neutral prosperity is possible. We can design and build a sustainable society within the time we have remaining. The matter hinges entirely on having the will to build it. And that's what's going to be tested now, and big time: our will.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Breaking the Climate Deadlock
350 ppm
Yes, really, 350 ppm
Zero, Now.

We are now an urban planet. In general, urbanization offers many benefits. But we need to design cities that allow people access to their greatest potential within a framework of sustainable prosperity. Bright green cities are designed so that residents have access to public parks, basic goods, entertainment, services and jobs within walking distance. Bright green cities include transit systems and mobility options to allow people to get from one place to another comfortably and on time without the use of a private vehicle. Bright green cities feature carbon-neutral buildings that are healthy for the people who live and work inside them. They use strategies like zero-waste plans and producer takeback laws to channel materials in closed loops.

Problems This Helps Solve: Because people who live close together use infrastructure and space much more efficiently, cities may just be our most powerful weapon against global warming. As the human population continues to grow on a planet that remains the same, our urban centers will continue to grow to accommodate those people's needs for shelter and employment. If we design our cities well, they will become places where people can live in bright green prosperity, enjoying access to a larger number of goods and services. And with people concentrated in comfortable, happy, healthy cities, these urban centers will become incubators for the best ideas and innovations of the centuries to come.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Does City Living Trim Greenhouse Gas Emissions?
The Next Slum and the New Green City
Dongtan and Greening China
Architecture 2030: An Interview with Ed Mazria
Principle 3: Cradle to Cradle and Closing the Loop
The Post-Oil Megacity
Urban Sustainability, Megacity Leapfrogging

It's time to stop building highways, and stop developing the disconnected, suburban sprawl they support. Instead, local and national governments in the Global North need to focus their resources on improving the streets and infrastructure that's already in place, making those streets work for all forms of mobility, from transit to cycling, to walking, to driving and cargo transport. This solution must go hand-in-hand with building comfortable, attractive, bright green cities where people can live densely while living well. If we redefine the model for growth, density and transportation in the industrialized world, we will help rapidly growing nations avoid the problems associated with auto-dependent development.

Problems This Helps Solve: We're stuck on the outdated idea that highways equal mobility. But although most of North America continues to pave new lanes in the hopes of reducing choking congestion, we're actually making the problem worse. According to this study from the Sightline Institute, adding even one mile of new highway lane will increase C02 emissions by more than 100,000 tons over 50 years. But the problem of highways goes beyond traffic, and beyond North America. Highways feed development that sprawls further and further out from urban centers, destroying green space and farmland, and locking residents into patterns of car-dependency. Not only does sprawl exacerbate the problem of emissions – it also fosters social problems, including increased cost of living and heightened risk of health problems.

Read More in the Worldchanging Archive:
Ray LaHood and Changing Our Thinking About Transportation
Worldchanging Interview: Peter Newman and Timothy Beatley
My Other Car is a Bright Green City
The Housing & Transportation Affordability Index
Toward a New American Infrastructure

Now go out there and take some gigantic leaps!

Image credits (left to right): angela7dreams, iChaz and angela7dreams. All shared under the Creative Commons license. Image editing: Sean Conroe.