Monday, October 28, 2013

Crafting Solutions, Using Video, and Sharing Ideas

When I was speaking to students at a small liberal arts college recently about sustainability, I was trying to highlight that sustainable solutions require a different approach than solutions that aim to fix one particular problem. An example might be trying to solve climate change by simply reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If we isolate problems in that way without consideration for the effects beyond greenhouse gas reduction we will no doubt have many unintended consequences to deal with.

Sustainability requires solving for many problems at the same time. Yes we need to reduce greenhouse gases, but we also need to reduce income inequality, improve access to healthy affordable food, and provide livelihoods that improve security for all. These are some of the solutions needed today. When our goal broadens or is redefined, the solutions begin to look different.

The new The Story of Solutions just released by the folks that brought us The Story of Stuff, brings that home nicely in this 9 minute video. One might quibble with statements here and there, but the overall thrust is right on target. Redefining the goals of a solution redirects the energies in crafting the solutions.

So to is a 3 minute video the Food and Agricultural Organization released last month along with an insightful report on global food waste.

Watch To see the Food Waste Footprint video click here

 Of course, as New York Times food writer, Mark Bittman wrote a couple weeks back, in "How to Feed the World", reducing food waste while an essential component to feeding the world's family is not in itself sufficient. But as he  reports, sustainable solutions will require solving not just for production, but labor, culture, distribution, and other factors that call for a reshaping of our food systems in an increasingly crowded world.

I am encouraged by the many, many groups in places all around the planet that are working together to develop solutions that are community based. Examples from two websites that I've recently stumbled into might whet your appetite. Visit -


Grassroots Economic Organizing or

The Cover of the shifting focus resource kit

Community Economies Collective

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Possibilities Aplenty, a Better World Is Possible

In the past 18 months I have read a number of engaging books looking at both the problems and the possibilities of our global economy.

Tim Jackson's, Prosperity Without Growth
Robert Frank, Darwin Economy
Molly Scott Cato, Green Economics and more recently The Bioregional Economy
Gilbert Rist, Delusions of Economics
Susan Davis and David Bornstein, Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know
Michael Schwalbe, Rigging the Game
Philip Smith and Max Neef, Economics Unmasked
Marjorie Kelly, The Owning Our Future
Rob Dietz and Dan O'Neil, Enough is Enough
Charles Eisensten, Sacred Economics
Michael Shuman, Local Dollars, Local Sense

Add to the list another title started over the weekend Solidarity Economics I: Building Alternatives for People and Planet, based upon papers presented at the 2009 U.S. Forum on the Solidarity Economy. I am pleasantly surprised to keep unearthing new "possibilities" for an economy that is based on principles of "solidarity, sustainability, equity in all dimensions, participatory democracy and pluralism" (p.13)

From the early pages of this 356 tome, there is an evident ethos that I find particularly inviting. Alan Miller writes in  chapter 2 there "are already-planted seeds of what many organizers and activists around the world are calling a "solidarity economy." Our task is not to invent a new economic blueprint from scratch and then convince the world to adopt it, but rather to participate together in ongoing work to strengthen, connect and build upon the many economic practices of cooperation and solidarity that already exist..

     ...Solidarity economy is an open process, an invitation. The concept doe not arise from a single political tradition or body of ideas. Its very nature and definition are in continual development, discussed and debated among its advocates. Seeking to "make the road by walking" rather than to push a closed or finalized ideology, solidarity economy is a "movement of movements" continually seeking connections and possibilities while holding on to the transformative commitment to shared values. (pp.25-26)

U.S. Solidarity Economy Network (SEN) is one of several emerging websites connecting those interested in the possibility of a different economy. The site has many useful links to others around the world working towards a solidarity economy.

Another grassroots shaker is Michael Shuman, who has been pushing the local focus through his books, Going Local and Local Dollars, Local Sense
 as well as his efforts as a leader with the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). Catch this very engaging 30 minute talk, Creating Local Wealth he gave sharing examples from communities across the country of what is POSSIBLE.

We haven't yet cataloged nor imagined all the possibilities. Time to set the creative juices flowing....

The Movement Evolves

Possibilitator has authored a couple brief blogs "The False God of Profit" and "Evolution in Investing" on the divestment from fossil fuel companies in the past few months. Such movements, like any grassroots popular uprising are usually smugly discarded by the powers that be. This was true of the 40 hour work week, the end of slavery, women's suffrage, gay and lesbian rights, anti-apartheid movement, etc.

This past Thursday signaled a possible major shift in this issue as, according to an Associated Press report leaders of 70 major pension funds are asking 45 of the world's top fossil fuel companies to do detailed assessments of how efforts to control climate change could affect their businesses. These investors collectively control $3 TRILLION in investment funds, so their request cannot be ignored.

Meanwhile US SIF

the leading pulse taker of the socially responsible investment industry, has created with Bloomberg LP, a Sustainable and Responsible Mutual Fund Chart that allows "individual investors to compare cost, financial performance, screens and voting records of competing funds". You can see which 145 funds are indeed "fossil free" as well as their performance over 1,3, 5, and 10 year averages.You can keep yourself up to date on this grassroots movement by visiting Fossil Free

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Feedback in Systems

Systems use feedback of various kinds to recalibrate in adapting to circumstances. It's part of evolution. it's part of social systems. Without feedback systems can spin out of control and crash. Joseph Stiglitz was a Nobel awardee in economics for essentially saying the same thing - that markets work, but only if there is full information available.

So can someone give me one solid reason why the industrial food sector, by and large, is so afraid to have their consumers know what's in their food? The Coke, Pepsi, Nestle, General Mills, etc. have been throwing the money you give them when you buy their products into lobbying campaigns against the right to know what's in your food. The Washington State Attorney General forced the disclosure recently of lobbying funds contributed to the anti- GMO labeling campaign that aims to defeat a proposal on November 5th in Washington that would require labeling of food with GMO ingredients. A total of $7.2 million so far through the industry's main organization the Grocery Manufacturers Association, but a whopping $17 million so far from all sources as reported here, while the pro-labeling side has raised only $6 million mostly from smaller organic and natural food companies and supporters. And not surprisingly, the media blitz that money has bought is shifting the polls on the issue. This is the same game that was played out last fall in California with the Monsanto's and the deep pockets flooding the airways with their public relations messages.

If like Joseph Stiglitz you too believe markets can work best with sunshine, then you might want to create a little feedback of your own. Look over the list of the manufacturers who want to keep us in the dark and let those that you have supported through your purchases of their products know what you think. Heck, if you feel strongly enough about this, tell them you'll stop buying that product or products. Feedback like this will help the system recalibrate back to that which we support and will support us.

Now, I for one don't think that the science is at all clear on the human or ecological safety of the GMO issue. Our bodies respond to parts per million and parts per billion of things in the environment. But I want to have a choice and be given sufficient information to make that choice. The fact that the GMA and the other food giants don't want us to know, tells me all I need to know at the moment - They don't believe in free markets.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Talkin' About Sustainability

 This week marks Campus Sustainability Week across the U.S. Many campuses are putting extra efforts into sharing the ideas and possibilities behind approaches that might make our present and future more habitable for all. The overwhelming emphasis on most campuses when talking about sustainability is environmental sustainability. Most often this is synonymous with greening or being green. Or if you're at Michigan State University  Be Spartan Green.

 Be Spartan Green - East Lansing, MI

This level of green is a more narrow green than the international green movement which shares Ten Key Values as noted in an earlier blog, The Color of Green.

But, while many if not most enter the sustainability pursuit through the environmental entrance, once on the path it is difficult to ignore the many other entrances and the larger systemic perspective that is a more robust, or some suggest deeper sustainability that includes as equal partners the social, political, economic, and spiritual dimensions. Sara Parkin, an early pioneer in both the Green and Sustainability movements, whom I have written about several times recently, perhaps shares this best at the end of her recent book, Positive Deviant: Sustainability Leadership in a Perverse World.

 Positive Deviant Sustainability Leadership in a Perverse World: Parkin, Sara

     As we square up to a fiendishly difficult couple of decades that will determine whether the 21st century is a human triumph or tragedy, there is a search on for a new logic in which to make sense of what to do next. For me, and I hope by now for you, the only logic that seems to fit the bill is sustainability, where growing environmental and human and social capital in pursuit of a good life well lived becomes the purpose of the 'toil and bustle' of our lives. In that logic there is what Susan Neiman calls a philosophic basis for understanding the difference between the actual and the possible, and a framework for getting there (Neiman, 2009 p.92).

     A cautionary word. We will have to mobilize all our leadership skills to defend this new logic. 'It's unrealistic' will be the most common objection you will hear. But don't fall for it. Calls for reality are calls to lower your expectations. The counter question has to be: 'Where will your reality take us, what logic is it pursuing?' Arguing for sustainability means that, if we want the ideal, we will have to strain very hard for it. Aim high and we might get most of it, if not all. And even if we do fall short, that is likely to be good enough. Aim low and we are bound to fail. Being asked to accept the realpolitik means bowing to someone else's reality.

     Part of championing sustainability will mean differentiating it from an ideology. That is a bounded collection of ideas, like Thatcherism or socialism, which, if applied to a given situation, is expected to come up with a recognizable solution or policy. As we are surrounded by the failure of the ideological approach to governing and to solving the very 'wicked' (complexly interrelated) problems we face, why develop another one? Gillian Tett remarked that it is the finance world's lack of interest in wider social matters that goes to the very heart of what went wrong (Tett, 2009). No, sustainability is not a hard-edged 'ism'. Nor, though it is a new way of thinking about the world around us and our place in it in a more spiritual as well as practical sense, is it a religion. Sustainability is more like a moral obligation, something that can take each of us in a different way even though we may be joined by a commitment to a similar end. Because we are all starting from a different place, there are many paths to sustainability. Anyone can join in without taking an oath or paying a membership fee.

...If the world is not what it should be, it is up to us to open our eyes and close the gap between what is, and what ought to be. If we want moral clarity, she [Susan Neiman] says, we have to put it there. We have to do the living in truth. We have to do the right thing. No one can do it for us. Our ideas and our words must be powerful, of course, but in the end it will be our actions that are convincing. (Parkin, pp.259-260)

From another wonderful little collection of short memoirs from some sustainability pioneers recently published under the title Small World, Big Ideas we see how each of these leaders found their way onto the trail of sustainability. Remember that sustainability as a worldview is an emerging idea that has taken root in many places as these memoirs show. We hear from Carlo Petrini, Italian founder of the Slow Food Movement; Satish Kumar, who was a Jain monk then walked from India to Russia to Paris to London to Washington DC to carry a message to abolish nuclear weapons; we hear from Bob Brown, Australian environmentalist and member of Parliament; Polly Higgins, UK Barister who has been developing the legal case for 'ecocide''; Jane Goodall, who has worked with our kin the chimpanzees for nearly 50 years; Franny Armstrong a UK filmmaker and activist; Caroline Lucas, UK first Green party Member of Parliament; and others including here Vandana Shiva, nuclear physicist turned activist. Shiva writes

     We face multiple crises - the ecological crisis, including climate, biodiversity, and water; the economic crisis of deepening poverty and emerging poverty; and a social and political crisis of democracy. These crises are interconnected, as in the solution. As I look ahead into the future, I see my activism guided by the paradigm of Earth Democracyu based on living democracy, living economies, and living culture.

     To create living democracy, we have to widen our embrace to include all life on Earth, the Earth community; we have to move from representation to participation.

     To create living economies, we have to move from growth to well-being of the Earth and human communities. We have to move from consumerism to conservation. We have to move from privatizing the Earth's resources to sharing the commons.

     To create living cultures, we have to move from greed to caring. At the heart of this transition is care for the Earth. That is why I am aprt of an emerging movement for the Rights of Mother earth. On the rights of the Earth are based human rights and rights of future generations. The Earth is calling us to be Earth activists and Earth Citizens. If we listen, we have a future. (p.122)

In the end it is our actions. How do we align our highest aspirations for what a good society should be with our own choices and actions each and every day. I'm still puzzling over the gap between my own aspirations and my actions. But I can start again on that integrity realignment even now. That  would be more than talkin' about sustainability.

Happy Campus Sustainability Week one and all!!! As Captain Picard would say, "Make it so."

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Democracy Does Not Fall From the Sky

This is the title of the foreword to a new book Educating for Democratic Consciousness. ed. Ali Abdi and Paul Carr, 2013) The author of the foreword, Daniel Schugurensky makes the following claim after giving a brief history of democracy.

Educating for Democratic Consciousness: Counter-Hegemonic Possibilities
     If we accept the premise that we are still living in a world that is profoundly undemocratic, that the fragile and imperfect democracies that we have today are the product of centuries of struggles, and that a more democratic world will not fall from the sky, it is clear that democracy is an unfinished project. This project is not only about a better form of government, more transparent and participatory governance, and more fair and equitable policies, it is also an ongoing process of community building, of healthy relationships with other community members and with nature. (p.xi)

He goes on to suggest five implications for education:

  • It requires developing democratic consciousness
  • It must be connected to peace education, citizenship education, intercultural education, environmental education, global education, gender education and more broadly to social studies education
  • Schools must not only help students adapt to society but also to help them change society for the better
  • Teacher education needs to emphasize education for democracy in preservice and inservice 
  • It must include emphasis on democratizing educational institutions themselves
Eighteen chapters from twenty sharp minds from many countries fill up the rest of the 270+ pages exploring these possibilities. I don't expect to read them all, but any I find particularly full of new possibilities will be shared...

Film at 11:00

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Evolution in Investing

With the renewed interest in looking at investments from more than a short-term financial gain for shareholders, to the some of the costs of playing this rigged game, the Fossil Free movement, like the anti-Apartheid movement that preceded it has stirred the brou-ha-ha. For individual investors looking for fossil free funds to put their surplus capital in the options are pretty limited.

One of those firms who have been in the SRI game for as long as any is Pax World Mutual Funds. Pax, as you might guess was formulated as a response to screening out military contractors who were profiting from the Vietnamese Conflict (It was never a declared war, tell that to the 55,000 US dead and the 1 million or more Vietnamese who perished, plus uncountable others who were wounded mentally and physically from the 'conflict".)

Pax has continued to hone its investing principles. An early supporter and signatory to the Principles for Responsible Investment, 

The six Principles

The 6 PrinciplesAs institutional investors, we have a duty to act in the best long-term interests of our beneficiaries. In this fiduciary role, we believe that environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) issues can affect the performance of investment portfolios (to varying degrees across companies, sectors, regions, asset classes and through time). We also recognise that applying these Principles may better align investors with broader objectives of society. Therefore, where consistent with our fiduciary responsibilities, we commit to the following:

Principle 1: We will incorporate ESG issues into investment analysis and decision-making processes.+

Principle 2: We will be active owners and incorporate ESG issues into our ownership policies and practices.+

Principle 3: We will seek appropriate disclosure on ESG issues by the entities in which we invest.+

Principle 4: We will promote acceptance and implementation of the Principles within the investment industry.+

Principle 5: We will work together to enhance our effectiveness in implementing the Principles.+

Principle 6: We will each report on our activities and progress towards implementing the Principles.+

     The Principles for Responsible Investment were developed by an international group of institutional investors reflecting the increasing relevance of environmental, social and corporate governance issues to investment practices. The process was convened by the United Nations Secretary-General.

In signing the Principles, we as investors publicly commit to adopt and implement them, where consistent with our fiduciary responsibilities. We also commit to evaluate the effectiveness and improve the content of the Principles over time. We believe this will improve our ability to meet commitments to beneficiaries as well as better align our investment activities with the broader interests of society.
We encourage other investors to adopt the Principles. 

Pax has moved from simply imposing investing screens - no military, no nuclear, no apartheid, etc. to offer more positive focused options, e.g. Global Environmental Markets Fund (fossil free), Global Women's Equality Fund, etc. along with it's more traditional screened funds. Even those screened funds allow some fossil fuels so that Pax can be active in bringing 'shareholder resolutions' to push the companies towards more socially and environmentally responsible behaviors.

Now they have taken a step to lower their own responsibility to mitigate global warming. They have benchmarked their funds with respect to their carbon emissions. Their plan is "to announce quantitative goals for the carbon intensity of our portfolios and publicly report on progress toward those goals."

In addition they have taken their Global Environmental Markets Fund, which was already fossil free to the next step- carbon neutrality.

    "That means that we have apportioned the emissions of every company in the portfolio according the percentage of the company's share owned in the fund. Using that data, we calculated the percentage of each company's emissions that the fund "owns". Then we purchased verified carbon reduction offsets to reduce the GHGs being emitted into the atmosphere by an equivalent amount. (Semi-Annual Report, June 30, 2013, pp.37-8)

The Whole and the Parts

All excerpts from any longer work are unavoidably only pieces of a larger whole. The accelerated speed by which information flows in our modern world, thus make seeing the whole more difficult. Context is often lost. Even so, as I select passages from things I read, I am always hopeful that the message is that the author excerpted is worthy of a closer and longer look. This is clearly case for the excerpt below from Colin Tudge's Why Genes Are Not Selfish and People Are Nice.


In the snippet below Tudge is trying to answer the question 'Why Nice People are Ruled by Nasty People'. My view is that he is trying to show how power operates, but the reader would be more enlightened by spending time with the whole book, if not the whole chapter.

     Worst of all, perhaps, is that scientists bend their efforts to support the hawkish elite [not hawkish in the militaristic sense, but in an extroverted sense]. This is most evident , and most dangerous, in agriculture; the pursuit that directly affects us all and which, in the end, will determine who lives and who dies. The current craze among the powers-that-be is for GM crops: crops shaped by DNA transfer aka 'genetic engineering'. In truth GM crops are not necessary. The risks attendant upon them are not worth taking. The whole technology has produced nothing of unequivocal value after thirty years of effort that could not have been produced more cheaply and safely by other means. The whole enterprise in buoyed by hype which to a significant extent is simply mendacious: that GM increases yields; that is essential to feed the world; that to oppose the technology is irresponsible; that science has already proved that there are no dangers. It is all untrue and most of it stark nonsense. Yet whole battalions of scientists queue up to perpetrate the nonsense. They are themselves not liars, for the most part. Many, and perhaps most of them, to be fair, believe the hype. But they are paid by rich biotech companies (or work for ostensibly publicly owned institutions including universities which nowadays  depend upon commercial funding) and if they didn't work on GM they would have no work at all. In reality, the main point of GM technology (and in the end the only point) is to increase the power and wealth of the biotech companies that make them, and of the governments, like Britain's that rely on corporate support. Specifically: governments like Britain's tot up the earnings of the corporates that operate within their shores and call it 'gross domestic product' or 'GDP'; and as GDP increases they call it 'economic growth'; -- which, in this materialist, neoliberal age, is the only measure of success that they take seriously. The means by which the wealth is produced, and whether the wealth actually brings benefit to the society as a whole, or humanity or the world as a whole, is not considered relevant. (pp.181-2)

Tudge, himself is a science geek, so his criticism of it holds more sway than from one who doesn't appreciate all that science has given us. Forty pages later he returns to both defend science and to recognize its limitations.

     None of this is intended to belittle science qua science. The rigour of its methods is truly impressive. So is the quality of thinking that frames and tests the hypotheses. So are many of the scientists themselves -- many combining enormous intelligence with personal humility and humanity. Many even this: science has shown us (at least as far as it is able to do so!) how wonderful the universe really is (which in some scientists at least, has reinforced their sense of transcendence). Finally, as a not inconsiderable bonus, science is useful. We, humanity, are probably at a point in history where we would find it hard to live tolerably without the high technologies that science so obligingly provides. Almost certainly, we could not live in such numbers.

     But still science is limited. It does not tell us all there is to know, or what we might reasonably want to know. All its ideas in the end are provisional -- because it is in the nature of science that its ideas can theoretically be disproved, or at least be shown to be inadequate, and so are always ready to be improved upon. its ideas must always be partially, because science can deal only with bits of the whole -- the bits that it is convenient to deal with. Scientific theories can never provide the whole truth -- or even if, by some miracle they seem to do so, we could not know that it was the whole truth because we cannot know how much we don't know. All in all we might sceptically suggest that scientists seem to give such precise and convincing arguments to life's problems only because they take great care to tailor the questions, and leave whatever looks too hard off the agenda.

     All in all, then, the model of science as the edifice of truth, an impregnable fortress, is nonsense. In so far as it is an edifice, said Popper, it is like Venice: impressive to be sure, yet founded not on bedrock but on stakes driven into the mud. (pp.222-3)

I have forty pages left and something tells me there will be further morsels to share, but they will fail to give the full picture of this opus of our times.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Failed Politics and Another Perspective

With the current government shutdown, many here in the U.S. have adopted the cynical view of politics as practiced here. Of course, even before this latest brouhaha, many had chosen not to participate - 2012 voter turnout for eligible voters dropped from 62.3% in 2008 to 57.5%.

GOP supporters say it is the Democrats fault, and of course the Democratic Party supporters say Republicans are to blame. Our system is designed (rigged?) to favor two parties in a winner take all system. Many third party efforts have been launched over our history, but none have managed to elect any significant number to legislative branches to have much effect.

The US Congress currently has only two members who are not members of either party - independent  Senators Bernie Sanders (VT)  and Angus King (ME). The Libertarian Party and the Green Party are the two most active parties over the past two decades. If we had proportional representation, each would have garnered enough votes nationally to have 3-4 members each in the House today. Not enough to sway many votes, but at least voices not constrained by major party allegiances.

     Petra Kelly, in her posthumously published, Thinking Green: Essays on Environmentalism, Feminism, and NonViolence (1994), suggests reasons why the German Greens lost their seats in the German Bundestag - internal fighting. But while she bemoaned that loss at the time of her death (21 years ago this month), she held high hopes for the U.S.

     There can be only one answer concerning when to start Green Politics at every electoral level in the United States: right now. because of the need for a low-energy future; because the earth's remaining rainforests are being destroyed to meet the interest on debt payments from poor to rich countries: because over 20 million Americans do not have enough to eat; because we must divert funds from military spending in order to solve terminal environmental, economic, and social problems; because human rights and civil liberties cannot be matters of political expediency; because we must replace consumption with conservation as society's driving force; because we can no longer ignore or neglect the years of warning signals telling us that we have come face to face with the natural limits of what we can take from the earth; because the earth has no emerge4ncy exit; because we can no longer sit by and watch Western governments be driven by endless expansion of consumption and by the futile goal of economic growth at any cost -- for these and countless other desperate reasons, we must present Green alternatives on the U.S. A. (Thinking Green (1994) p.131).

Two decades after her untimely death at the age of 44, Kelly's insights ring even more true today (or at least there is more evidence available to support her thesis as stated here). Kelly's insights into the decline of her own German Green party in the late 1980s would be worth politicians of all stripes to consider. Kelly saw the Green Party as an anti-party party.

     The term anti-party party has frequently been misunderstood. To me the term denotes a party capable of choosing between morality and power, that uses creative civil disobedience to combat every form of repression, that combines audacious imagination with efficient working methods, and that recognizes the link between world peace and the peace within every individual. Anti-party parties do not exercise power in the old authoritarian ways. They try to use power in ways that help people achieve self-determination in their own lives. (pp. 126-7)

When maintaining power becomes more important than doing what is right, we all lose. Unfortunately in a society obsessed with winning is everything, we get a system designed to favor winners, instead of everyone we share this amazing planet with.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds

We here in the middle of the Great Lakes take water for granted. Surrounded as we are by the greatest freshwater system on the planet, even those occasional pesky dry spells rarely give us pause to consider how blessed we are. The past two days has brought a pair of announcements that help me both appreciate our abundance and the growing scarcity of clean fresh water that much of the planet is faced with.
The summer of 2012 offered me the opportunity to visit with some leaders of the non-profit leaders in Senegal and Burkina Faso, both when they visited here and my visit there in July. It was visible to me that the effort just to bring water to their homes required significant effort, but the quality of water even when it was available was not good for human health. 

Upon my return home I pursued the possibility of helping share the low input water filtration technology known as biosand filters. I was thrilled that my most admired company in Michigan, Cascade Engineering, had a division that was manufacturing them. Cascade Engineering is Michigan’s first certified

B-Corporation, a company designed for public benefit.  I started immediately to see if I could raise enough money to by and ship 50-100 of these filters back to my new friends in Burkina Faso.

As I was tying to understand what it would take to get those filters there I discovered through the help of those smarter than me, that as good a product as they are, the Hydraid biosand water filters would cost too much to ship to Burkina Faso. The shipping was dramatically more costly than the manufacturing cost. Thus the funds that I raised would barely cover the costs of getting the trainers to Ouagadougou, let alone pay for the costs of the filters and their shipment.

While I was forlorn at learning this, another area activist with experience with Lansing’s Sister city Akuapim South Municipal District in Ghana, identified a non-profit Aqua Clara International, also based in Michigan that was using the same type of  biosand technology but with a social entrepreneur approach, wherein the filters could be manufactured in the local destination utilizing local materials. As I investigated this option further I was delighted to find out that one of the leaders of this effort was
ted loudon
  Dr. Ted Loudon, an emeritus MSU Professor of Biosystems Engineering that I had worked with years earlier on utilizing food waste from campus in a biodigester.  Another serendipitous element found at the helm of the nonprofit was
harry knopke
  Harry Knopke, formerly president of Aquinas College, where I worked many years earlier before Harry was president, but whom I had met several times through some higher education sustainability events.

After  several meetings and some discussion via email with new friends in Burkina Faso, it began to look as though we might be able to connect Aqua Clara with the nonprofits in Ouagadougou. Based upon some preliminary information gathering it looked like we might be able to make this project work. But life is never quite so simple. One of my main contacts, Francois Bado, in all this was pulled away from his nonprofit leadership in Burkina Faso to be a human rights monitor for the African Union in neighboring Mali. Earlier in the year  a coup in Mali had not only removed that visit from our original itinerary, but more importantly had unleashed a wave of refugees into northern Burkina Faso that the sixth  least developed nation was hard pressed to support.  Likewise our other two contacts in Ouagadougou who were trying to pull our project t together on that end, were called away for periods to work in the newly established refugee camps.

But patience paid off, as we finally got the pieces together. Trainers arrived in in Ouagadougou at the end of September and stayed for a week shopping for available materials and providing the training for a team of young men leaving them with enough funds to buy materials to construct many filters for distribution.

I received the report from the training team just yesterday along with the photos you see here. These types of filters will work best in rural areas and can provide filtered water for a family for up to six years with regular maintenance.

Filter sand being set out to dry along with coarse sand and ballast.

Different designs are now being considered for construction and use in the urban area (Ouagadougou is a city of 1,000,000) and we might help launch this with a Phase II fundraising effort. My great joy at the successful launch of this effort that took more than a year was tempered today by the receipt of this report from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research that indicates that increasing water scarcity will impact hundreds of millions before the end of the century.

"If population growth continues, by the end of our century under a business-as-usual scenario these figures would equate to well over one billion lives touched," Gerten points out. "And this is on top of the more than one billion people already living in water-scarce regions today." Parts of Asia and North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East are particularly vulnerable.

As Rebecca Solnit so evocatively depicts in the phrase borrowed for the title of this entry from her Book, The Faraway Nearby, our kin in nature are more conscientious in their use of water. Perhaps we can learn from them before it is too late.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Enlightening Conversation

Two 79 year-old wise gents got together recently for a conversation that would be worthy of forty minutes of your life to view. Bill Moyers and Wendell Berry's conversation was recorded and broadcast on Moyers and Company this weekend and is now available here for viewing online.

This one-on-one conversation was taped at Kentucky’s St. Catharine College during a two-day conference celebrating Wendell Berry’s life and ideas and marking the 35th anniversary of the publication of his landmark book, The Unsettling of America.

Front Cover

When the camera pans the audience, viewers see many leading thinkers in the audience including Bill McKibben, Wes Jackson, Vandana Shiva, etc. some of whom offer some thoughts in what can also be considered a profile of Berry's life as a farmer and author. Moyers also moves Berry to read some of his poetry. Berry does not make many presentations and has rarely been on television. I heard him speak once when my wife, Ellen and I, drove to Grand Rapids in April 2000 to hear him speak, essentially to read, a talk prepared in honor of a friend who had recently passed.

Ellen and I have both always found Berry to be the most efficient writer we've ever read, no matter if it's his poetry, essays, short stories or novels. Moyers mentions that the total number of books authored is more than 40 and rarely does someone write in so broadly and effectively in so many forms. But, Berry's writing is so effective, no word added superfluously, each word chosen for optimal clarity and precision that to listen to him read, as we did in Grand Rapids, is harder than reading him, where you can pause and debrief all the meaning packed into a sentence.

Viewing this broadcast last night we were both captivated by the conversation, by the wisdom, articulateness, the cadence, and the passion/compassion he evoked. Of course, it's the content that is truly worthy of ingesting. Hopefully you'll find a time to appreciate this. And of course there are the 40+ books, if you haven't read any, you may want to pick up to feed your soul and imagination of a better world that could be possible. Berry is hopeful despite the crises facing us, thus the title of the broadcast - Wendell Berry on His Hopes for Humanity.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Matter of Scale

I would be hard pressed to choose between my two favorite authors these days. You've been hearing about and from Colin Tudge and have heard, not infrequently, from Rebecca Solnit. Today she published another fervent, prosaic piece on the challenge of climate change The Age of Inhuman Scale: On the 'Bigness' of Climate Change....

Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was 'big,' but climate change in its totality is something most of find simply unfathomable. (Photo: NASA)

     Some things are so big you don’t see them, or you don’t want to think about them, or you almost can’t think about them. Climate change is one of those things. It’s impossible to see the whole, because it’s everything. It’s not just a seven-story-tall black wave about to engulf your town, it’s a complete system thrashing out of control, so that it threatens to become too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, too wild, too destructive, too erratic for many plants and animals that depend on reliable annual cycles. It affects the entire surface of the Earth and every living thing, from the highest peaks to the depths of the oceans, from one pole to the other, from the tropics to the tundra, likely for millennia -- and it’s not just coming like that wave, it’s already here.
    It’s not only bigger than everything else, it’s bigger than everything else put together.  But it’s not a sudden event like a massacre or a flood or a fire, even though it includes floods, fires, heat waves, and wild weather.  It’s an incremental shift over decades, over centuries.  It’s the definition of the big picture itself, the far-too-big picture. Which is why we have so much news about everything else, or so it seems.

Solnit, in her typical piercing fashion gets into the flesh and bones of the issue. Like her,

      I think about it, and I read about it, following blogs at Weather Underground, various climate websites, the emails of environmental groups, the tweets of people at, and bits and pieces of news on the subject that straggle into the mainstream and alternative media. Then I lose sight of it. I think about everything and anything else; I get caught up in old human-scale news that fits into my frameworks so much more easily. And then I remember, and regain my sense of proportion, or disproportion.

With all that data and evidence I find this disconnect in that nearly every educated person I know seems to totally miss the scale of the threat. I'm personally not sure what will accelerate our demise faster - growing inequality or increasing climate change. In my mind they are linked and thus solutions must address both at the same time. But in putting our energies into trying to address all the other important challenges before us - inequality, political partisanship, military spending Middle East affairs, human rights, access to education and food,water, and shelter and on and on -- climate change has to be part of the consideration.

Perhaps if more were to read Solnit's reflection on this crisis before us, we could summon our better angels to begin to transform our  underlying systems before it is too late. Even if that's being too hopeful, reading Solnit connects us to something within ourselves and our relationships with each other and the spinning sphere that we call home -- and that is a good thing. Relish the read...