Author Archives: Editor

A Sustainable Life at Three Sisters Farm by Daniel Driscoll

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Blue Planet United Publishes New Book on Population

Elders_cover_WEBBlue Planet United has just published a new book titled Facing the Population Challenge: Wisdom from the Elders edited by Marilyn Hempel.

This book is for all who have ever pondered the fate of humanity and the biosphere and asked, “What can I do?” Fifteen elders—giants in the field of human population and development—share their vision of a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. Drawing from many decades of practical experience and deep knowledge, they trace the contours of rapid population growth, its socioeconomic and environmental challenges, and the lessons they have learned in dealing with these challenges. They go on to lay out concrete actions that can move our civilization forward to a future of wanted children, empowered women, and an economy that works within restored ecosystems.

Features chapters by Lester R. Brown, Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich,  Albert A. Bartlett, Malcolm Potts, Donald A. Collins, David Poindexter, William N. Ryerson, Linn Duvall Harwell, Sarah G. Epstein, Robert Gillespie, Martha Campbell, Lindsey Grant, David and Marcia Pimentel.

Click here to order the book online.

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Filed under Books, Family Planning, Population, Sustainability

Blue Planet United Helps Educate Future Leaders

Students learn marine ecology “in situ” while paddling through the Rock Islands.

One of the key Blue Planet United projects is ‘experiential learning’ for university students. For the past 12 years, Blue Planet United working together with the University of Redlands, has taken students on a one-month intensive travel class to Palau, to study sustainable development in a country that is grappling with the tensions of modernization and the desire to preserve their culture and traditional way of life. As of 2012, one hundred and twenty students have travelled with us to Palau, and another ten are signed up to go this May (2013). The class has become so popular that 60 students asked to go this year; we can only take 10 at a time because of the size of the small eco-resort where we stay.

Each student is asked to keep a journal, and at the end of the course, write an essay about what they have seen and learned. The following is the essay written by Amanda Atkins, one of the students who went with us last year.

For more details about this project go to https://blueplanetunited.org/projects/the-palau-project/

Coral Reefs and Culture: Addressing the Issue of Sustainability in Palau

by Amanda Atkins

Godwin Sadao, Palauan divemaster and naturalist.

In May 2012 I had the opportunity to journey to Palau, a small, tropical island republic located in the Pacific between the Philippines and Guam.  This university class focused on marine ecology and sustainability.  Bolstered by my fascination with the ocean and Google’s image collection of an emerald jungle paradise surrounded by crystal blue waters, I eagerly endured the 28 hours of travel necessary for the trip of a lifetime.

Beyond the glamorous experiences of scuba diving among some of the highest biodiversity on the planet, exploring uncharted Rock Islands, snorkeling in secluded turquoise lagoons and hiking through rain forests, there was a great deal to be learned about Palauan culture, the many threats facing Palau’s delicate coral reef ecosystems, and the country’s potential to be sustainable.

Most people tend to think of sustainability in terms of renewable energy and resource-efficient, organic agriculture.  Countries known to offset carbon emissions and dedicate significant economic resources to environmental management, such as Iceland, Sweden, or Costa Rica, immediately come to mind, in addition to images of windmills, solar panels, clever eco-architecture, and acres of leafy subsistence crops. However, these ideas only hint at the vital aspect of stewardship, are only small facets of sustainability’s truer, deeper meaning and importance to humanity. An overarching, umbrella definition of sustainability refers to the capacity of a place to support itself and meet its own present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is a balance of environmental integrity, social equity, and economic strength; attaining this balance worldwide would enable the Earth to continue supporting life as we know it.

In Palau, the definition of sustainability is just as complicated, but attaining the balance of environment, economy, and social equity seems to revolve around two main things: the survival of traditional Palauan culture in the modern world, and preservation of the coral reef ecosystem in the face of many threats.

On a special evening in the small city of Koror, our class was invited to a barbeque with some of Palau’s most respected elders and community leaders.  Around a home-cooked traditional meal of fresh fish, fruit, and grilled taro, we discussed some of the current cultural issues in Palau, especially those concerning young Palauans.

“Our future is in our young people,” the elders said. But they went on to  lament,  “Our young people do not care about tradition anymore. They are lazy. They do not respect their elders. They want to leave their home country and work abroad and never give back to their community. They do not want to fish or plant taro, they want to eat potato chips and watch television.”

Numerous problems were listed: due to the complexity of the Palauan language, few young people are learning to speak or read it anymore, and elders fear their linguistic heritage will soon disappear completely; traditional chewing of Betel nut is being abused with the addition of tobacco, which has lead to an increase in cancer across the country; obesity and diabetes run rampant with the popularization of fatty, salty Western snacks and the decreased consumption of traditional, nutritional foods like taro, which requires extensive physical labor to grow; traditional methods are increasingly being “updated” by modern ones, as illustrated in the carving of ceremonial canoes with industrial power tools; and there is a mass exodus of young people who desire the better-paid jobs in outside countries in order to afford Western comforts and entertainment.

The preservation of culture is important in the sustainability of Palau because, like the coral reef ecosystem, it is so integral to the social, economic, and environmental workings of the country.  These deep connections can be illustrated in ancient Palauan legends, such as the Legend of the Magic Breadfruit Tree.  The story goes that once, long ago, there was a coastal village called Ngbital, where an old woman lived.  Her son often travelled and she had no other family, so she lived alone.  Every day the people of Ngibtal would pass by her house as they returned from the sea with their daily catch of fish, and though they saw she was an old woman and unable to fish for herself, they never offered to share their food with her, to her great disappointment.  One day the woman’s son returned after a long absence and she complained of this behavior to him.  Her son went into the yard of his mother’s house and, coming to a large breadfruit tree at the water’s edge, and chopped off one of the branches.  Where the branch had been, water immediately gushed from the tree, flowing to the rhythm of the waves slapping the shore, and with each surge a fish leapt out of the tree.  The old woman now had a way to get fish for her pot.  However, upon seeing this wonderful fish-bearing tree, the other villagers became jealous.  “We must go all the way out to sea to fish,” they complained, “while this woman need only sit beneath her tree.”  One night, an especially envious man crept out to the tree and chopped it down.  Torrents of water immediately burst forth and covered the village, drowning all its inhabitants.

The lesson taught by this story is one of sustainability. In a distinctly Palauan way, it demonstrates the importance of community sharing, of curbing human consumption and greed, and of respecting the environment, a combination of culture and understanding of environmental importance that is inherent through years of heritage. Every young Palauan is told this story, and if they could only remember its lessons, both the culture and the environment might be better off.  In the face of all the ways culture and tradition are disappearing, there appear to be few solutions.  One solution that does seem to be having a positive impact is a combination of youth education and cultural pride camps.  The Palau Conservation Society and other cultural community organizations encourage children to participate in conservation exercises and experience heritage and traditions hands-on.  The goal is that in learning about their rich and colorful history and seeing their world from this perspective, these children will gain a pride and respect for their country and the environment tht will extend into their adulthood.  On a small scale this approach has been successful, but it would need to be expanded to reach the whole of Palau.  An elder Palauan at the barbeque explained this idea. “In the past we were disciplined,” he said.  “We went to school and studied and worked hard every day.  This is no more.  If we can just find some way to motivate all our young people, to make them want to work hard, to make them proud of their Palauan heritage, make them want to do good in the community, it will solve many problems for our country.”

“What do the coral reefs mean to Palauans?” I asked Godwin, our Peleliu dive boat captain, one bright afternoon.  I had been napping in the warmth of the bow as my classmates snorkeled in cerulean shallows. Waves lapped gently at the sides of the boat, a slight breeze ruffling the pages of a book I’d used as a pillow and swishing the ends of Godwin’s dark dreadlocks.

He chewed pensively on a piece of coconut.  My question had been a bit vague and abrupt, so I was relieved when he answered.  “The reef…it is life,” he said finally.  “We live by its edge, we get fish from the waters for our food, then we bring in tourists to see the corals and fish to make money. It is our livelihood. We are connected to the reef.  It is beautiful and important.  We know if the reef is destroyed it will mean death for us too.”  He leaned back, stretching.  “And now I take you to see these things.  Now you see the beauty, and you remember, and you will take it back with you.” I shielded my eyes from the sun, nodded solemnly.

Palauans in general seem to possess a strong understanding of environmental importance.  In comparison to many countries, Palau has been extremely pro-active about their approach to environmental management and preservation, especially in recent years.  Unlike a neighboring Micronesian country, Palau declined to have a giant casino built on one of their islands.  They have an active Conservation Society that works to protect both marine and terrestrial ecosystems, provides education, and encourages community stewardship of biodiversity and natural resources. In 2005 Palau pledged itself to the “Micronesia Challenge”, an attempt to facilitate effective conservation of Micronesian marine and forest resources through protecting 30 percent of near shore coastal waters and 20 percent of forest land by the year 2020.  In 2009 Palau created the world’s first shark sanctuary, banning all shark fishing in 230,000 square miles of ocean surrounding the country.

However, there are vast threats to Palau’s delicate and biodiverse marine environment.  The 1998 El Nino devastated many corals, and the looming menace of global climate change hints at a succession of El Nino storm seasons to come, in addition to rising sea levels and ocean acidification.  Despite the creation of the shark sanctuary and strict regulations on certain fisheries, illegal shark fin and giant clam harvesting still occurs.  With only a handful of Coast Guard boats to patrol and protect the waters around Palau, it is exceedingly difficult and expensive (and sometimes dangerous) to apprehend environmental criminals.  When poachers and law-breakers are caught and brought to justice, they tend to receive light sentences, mere wrist slaps that barely discourage them from returning to their illegal activities as soon as they return to the ocean.

Tourism, which is vital to the Palauan economy, is increasing and causing new development and intensifying energy usage.  A side effect of the increasing human population is an increase in sewage: the semi-treated sewage runoff goes into the ocean and the influx of nutrients in the water can cause algae blooms which have detrimental effects on the reefs.  Other harmful species, such as coral-eating snails and Crown of Thorns starfish can destroy whole acres of coral, and are extremely difficult to manage because they must be forcibly removed en masse, which takes tedious amounts of time and effort.

The coral reefs I experienced in Palau flourished with a dazzling array of the  greatest biodiversity I’ve ever seen, and it is difficult to imagine how so much life could be at risk. While to my eyes reef life appears to be abundant, there is extensive evidence that it has been seriously depleted in the past century.  Everyone from fishermen to environmental tour guides to the everyday citizen will tell you that the reefs are nothing like they were 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, or 30 years ago.

It is unlikely these beautiful ecosystems will remain stable without a real change in thinking, without a renewed effort at conservation and environmental sustainability.  This is certainly an “easier said than done” situation in Palau.  Invest in green development and eco-tourism in order to nullify some of the negative human effects on the environment, one might suggest, but Palau simply does not have the resources of a large, rich country like the United States.  While the community and youth educational programs that have been developed so far are a step in the right direction, unless those efforts become more widespread achievements will likely be minimal.  Perhaps the biggest responsibility lies, as Godwin indicated, with tourists like me, who can alert the rest of the world to Palau’s plight and inspire them to do something to save these last pieces of paradise left on the planet.

Soon after I returned to the United States, I joined my grandparents for their weekly Sunday lunch at the local Applebee’s with their friends from church.  One of their friends, a quiet, watery-eyed man, seemed especially interested that I had visited Palau.  He was in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he explained, and had been part of a recovery unit for salvageable ship parts in the Pacific.  Their unit had stopped on the island of Peleliu, only months after the devastating battle that took place there.

“Are there any trees growing on the island yet?” he asked me eagerly.  “It was completely leveled when I was there, not even a stump.  I don’t know if anything could ever grow again after that, but I thought maybe a few trees might have made it.”

Silently I retrieved my cell phone and, through the wonders of technology, quickly pulled up a picture I had taken of present-day Peleliu, handing it over to him.  He took it with shaky hands, squinting at the image displayed: a lush, dense, green forest, with thousands of ferns and tall trees and bright flowers.

He smiled.

The occupation of Peleliu in World War II and the bloody battle that took place there is now a part of Palau’s history, and it is important not to forget one of the most bloody battles of the war.  But in that moment, looking at that photo, I truly appreciated the marvelous ability of nature to bounce back, to grow and thrive again even after the most awful destruction.  Just as the jungle returned on Peleliu, the coral reefs have recovered from environmental bleaching and human impacts, remaining a delicate but resilient natural resource.  It is an illustration of hope: though we have made some grave mistakes and have wreaked havoc on the environment, perhaps if we act now we can lessen the blow to the planet’s future. With concentrated effort, we still have a chance to save and preserve the places, like Palau, that teem with beauty and life, for future generations to love and enjoy.

Amanda Atkins is a senior at the University of Redlands majoring in biology.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Conservation, Sustainability, Wilderness & Wildlife

World in Serious Trouble on Food Front by 

Lester R. Brown

“Lost corn crop, Missouri, 2012” photo from USDAgov/Flickr/cc

In the early spring of 2012, U.S. farmers were on their way to planting some 96 million acres in corn, the most in 75 years. A warm early spring got the crop off to a great start. Analysts were predicting the largest corn harvest on record.

The United States is the leading producer and exporter of corn, the world’s feedgrain. At home, corn accounts for four-fifths of the U.S. grain harvest. Internationally, the U.S. corn crop exceeds China’s rice and wheat harvests combined. Among the big three grains – corn, wheat, and rice – corn is now the leader, with production well above that of wheat and nearly double that of rice.

The corn plant is as sensitive as it is productive. Thirsty and fast-growing, it is vulnerable to both extreme heat and drought. At elevated temperatures, the corn plant, which is normally so productive, goes into thermal shock. As spring turned into summer, the thermometer began to rise across the Corn Belt. In St. Louis, Missouri, in the southern Corn Belt, the temperature in late June and early July climbed to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher 10 days in a row. For the past summer weeks, the Corn Belt has been blanketed with dehydrating heat.

Weekly drought maps published by the University of Nebraska show the drought-stricken area spreading across more and more of the country until, by mid-July, it engulfed virtually the entire Corn Belt. Soil moisture readings in the Corn Belt are now among the lowest ever recorded.

While temperature, rainfall, and drought serve as indirect indicators of crop growing conditions, each week the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases a report on the actual state of the corn crop. This year the early reports were promising. On May 21st, 77 percent of the U.S. corn crop was rated as good to excellent. The following week the share of the crop in this category dropped to 72 percent. Over the next eight weeks, it dropped to 26 percent, one of the lowest ratings on record. The other 74 percent is rated very poor to fair. And the crop is still deteriorating.

Over a span of weeks, we have seen how the more extreme weather events that come with climate change can affect food security. Since the beginning of June, corn prices have increased by nearly one half, reaching an all-time high on July 19th.

Although the world was hoping for a good U.S. harvest to replenish dangerously low grain stocks, this is no longer in the cards. World carryover stocks of grain will fall further at the end of this crop year, making the food situation even more precarious. Food prices, already elevated, will follow the price of corn upward, quite possibly to record highs.

Not only is the current food situation deteriorating, but so is the global food system itself. We saw early signs of the unraveling in 2008 following an abrupt doubling of world grain prices. As world food prices climbed, exporting countries began restricting grain exports to keep their domestic food prices down. In response, governments of importing countries panicked. Some of them turned to buying or leasing land in other countries on which to produce food for themselves.

Welcome to the new geopolitics of food scarcity. As food supplies tighten, we are moving into a new food era, one in which it is every country for itself.

The world is in serious trouble on the food front. But there is little evidence that political leaders have yet grasped the magnitude of what is happening. The progress in reducing hunger in recent decades has been reversed. Unless we move quickly to adopt new population, energy, and water policies, the goal of eradicating hunger will remain just that.

Time is running out. The world may be much closer to an unmanageable food shortage – replete with soaring food prices, spreading food unrest, and ultimately political instability – than most people realize.

Source: Earth Policy Institute: http://www.earth-policy.org/plan_b_updates/2012/update104

Lester R. Brown is President of Earth Policy Institute. His most recent book, Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity is due out on October 1, 2012. Check our website for more details on how to pre-order the book. Data and additional resources at www.earth-policy.org.

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Filed under Climate, Food, Sustainability

12 Ways To Live Sustainably

1.   Plant trees!  Seed the future. Trees feed and protect us in many ways. Trees sequester (absorb) carbon and give us clean air. They stabilize world weather patterns. Planted around our houses in the right spots, they can lower our heating and cooling bills dramatically.

2.   Leave your car at home:  walk, ride-share, carpool, bike, take a bus. Not only will you be cleaning the air, you won’t have to find a parking place.

3.   Buy the most fuel efficient car or truck you can find. There are many models that get at least 40 mpg.  Don’t buy a bigger vehicle than you really need. Consider the new hybrid electric or 100% electric cars.

4.   Buy energy efficient appliances. Do some research before buying. Look for the energy efficiency label that is now required on each appliance, and its rating of life-time cost.

5.   Conserve water.  Install low-flow devices in all shower heads and faucets. When replacing a toilet, buy a water-saving one. They use about half as much water, and will also lower your hot water costs.

6.   Compost yard waste. One-third of the waste going into our landfills is greenwaste. By starting a simple compost heap you not only reduce landfills, but get free fertilizer too.

7.   Reduce the use of home pesticides and toxic cleaners. Keep your kitchen clean and don’t let household trash collect. Try using simple products such as baking soda and vinegar for cleaning.  They are cheaper and not toxic to you, your family, pets and planet.

8.   Buy LED or compact fluorescent light bulbs. They use about 1/3 the electricity and last at least 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs.

9.   Be an energy miser.  It will save you money. Use less heat, water, and gasoline. Insulate your walls and roof, and caulk around windows and doors.

10. Buy recycled!  Demand recycled paper products. It is not enough to recycle. As consumers we have the power to create markets and to insist that manufacturers complete the recycling loop. Each year there are more and more recycled products—from paper to carpeting to building materials. Look for and ask for them.

11. Eat lower on the food chain.  Producing a pound of beef uses 30 times more energy than growing a pound of vegetable protein. Worldwide, tropical forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate to create pastureland for cattle exported to the US.

12. Support policies that will promote renewable energy sources: solar, wind, low-impact hydro and geothermal. A carbon tax and other fossil fuel efficiency measures are needed. We need real-cost pricing of goods. The US needs to end unfair fossil fuel subsidies. If we do not begin to pay the true cost of our energy use, the planet will pay—and people will suffer.

The US could save $400 billion a year if its energy use were as efficient as Japan’s and Germany’s.

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Filed under Conservation, Consumption, Energy, Sustainability

We Can Change the World by Changing Ourselves

by Marilyn Hempel, Executive Director, Blue Planet United 

Rising food prices, rising gas prices, rising water and electricity rates: an uncertain future? It can feel pretty overwhelming to learn about all the economic, environmental, and energy challenges in store for us this century. We can be fearful and angry, or we can seize the opportunity to take back the control of our lives, and build strong local communities with deep connections. We can become resilient.

Chris Martensen, a former Fortune 300 CEO, has written many articles about personal and community resilience. (http://www.chrismartenson.com/)  He has developed a series of steps we can follow to become less fearful of “future shocks”, steps that help build sustainable communities.

We are more resilient when we have local sources and systems to supply a needed item, rather than being dependent on a faraway source. We are more resilient when we are in control of meeting our needs and when we can do things for ourselves. For example, we gain food resilience by eating local food, perhaps by shopping at a farmers’ market, or by joining a “community-supported agriculture” group, or by growing more fruit and vegetables ourselves and thereby increasing our local supply of food and farming skills.

According to Chris, actions are both necessary and insufficient. Let’s be perfectly honest: any steps we take to prepare for a potential environmental, societal, or economic disruption, no matter how grand, are nearly certain to be insufficient. Nevertheless, they are still necessary. They will be insufficient because being perfectly prepared is infinitely unknowable and expensive. But actions are necessary because they help us become more in control of our lives. Often, when gaps exist between knowledge and actions, anxiety is the result. It’s not the state of the world that creates the anxiety as much as it is lack of action.

So we take actions because we must. If we don’t, who will? We change the world by changing ourselves.

Set realistic goals. Any resilience is better than none. For example, there’s an enormous difference between being 0% and 10% self-sufficient for food. In the former case you rely entirely on commercial agriculture and the existing food-distribution system. In the latter you have a garden, fruit trees in the yard, and perhaps relationships with local farmers. Maybe producing 10% of your food is not enough, but it’s a start.

As individuals, we can become more resilient, but ultimately, community is essential. It is incredibly helpful to have people to talk to, to join with, as we set out on the path to sustainable living.

In the end, we are only as secure as our neighbors, our neighborhood is only as secure as our city, and our city is only as secure as the next city. But it all begins with us, with resilient households determining how the future unfolds.

Marilyn Hempel is a writer and native Californian who thinks the next 20 years won’t be like the last 20 years.

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A film series to mark the new year

Four short films to connect both mind and spirit to the challenge of sustainability in the 21st century.

Available January 2012.

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Filed under Film & Media