Why the Earth doesn’t need saving (but we do)

At Idealist, we love good ideas of all kinds, but especially those that turn commonly-accepted notions on their heads, get us to confront our beliefs, and (maybe) stir up a little trouble. To honor ideas brave and bold, and inspired by Sydney, Australia’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, we welcome you to Idealist in Action’s Dangerous Ideas Week.

My cousin used to drive a battered Subaru Leone wagon. You know the kind: it was the low-slung, boxy prelude to the sleek and ubiquitous Outback, and like all ancient Subarus that survived to see the twenty-first century, it was baby blue and puttering slowly but steadily home from the moon. At least, according to the odometer.

It was the kind of car that separates a certain breed of dirt-under-the-nails environmentalist from their well-heeled, Prius-driving counterparts. Accordingly, plastered to its rattling rear bumper was a sticker bearing a wry inscription: “Save the Humans!” implored a Greenpeace-esque whale, entreating tailgaters and passers-by.

At the time, I thought it was nothing more than a darkly humorous joke. A decade later, I think it’s the best environmental slogan I’ve ever heard. That’s because the sentiment it mocks—the notion that humans could and should ‘save the Earth’—is misguided at best and preposterous at worst. Us humans are the ones with serious cause for concern, not the planet. The tongue-in-cheek sentiment of that bumper sticker is dead on: we are the ones in need of saving.

Source: Flickr/jsmif

Is this bumper sticker ironic or prophetic?
(image via Flickr/jsmif)

Let me be the first to admit that this sounds a tad melodramatic and more than a little unscientific. But I am a scientist (a geologist, specifically) and here, I will endeavor to convince you that this is the most rational conclusion to draw from the vast and heavy weight of geologic evidence.

Consider, for perspective, just these select episodes of the Earth’s long and incomprehensibly violent past:

For the first billion years of its existence, our whole sphere burned with angry flames of primordial rock. An entire planet made of lava that shuddered under an unrelenting rain of extra-terrestrial shrapnel—asteroids and comets and bits of other planets that failed to form from the solar nebula. One impact of a Mars-sized object was so catastrophic that it peeled off a wave of molten crust, thrusting it into orbit to become the moon.

In the relative calm of an adolescent solar system, life on Earth evolved, but sheepishly, out of sight, in the dark depths of the early oceans. Above water, the planet bore no resemblance to its current state. The continents had barely begun to grow, rising like fat to the top of a stockpot above the churning mantle. Carbon dioxide cloaked the planet in a torrid haze—concentrations may have been 25 times higher than they are today—trapping the precious radiation of a faint young sun and preventing the seas from crystallizing into solid ice.

The atmosphere then would have poisoned human lungs because it lacked even the slightest trace of oxygen. This gas did not become a major component of the atmosphere until about 2 billion years ago—half the Earth’s age—when the first photosynthetic bacteria belched it out in an accident of metabolic chemistry. For ninety percent of Earth’s history, nothing colonized its continents, not even so much as a chewing-gum smear of lichen. From afar, the planet would have looked aqueous and dull, lifeless and static.

Around 600 million years ago, after the Earth thawed from a bout of global glaciation known as Snowball Earth, life bigger than a grain of salt evolved for the first time. And then it was eradicated by a rogue meteor. And then it proliferated again. And again was flattened. In all, natural forces have quashed the diversity of life a staggering five times. The largest episode, when nearly all marine species went extinct 250 million years ago, may have been caused by the arrival of a new and highly successful bacteria that destroyed the environment that nourished it (sound familiar?).

pull quoteIn the last one million years alone, great ice sheets have waxed and waned at the beck and call of slight wobbles in the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Armies of glaciers rode back and forth across Canada and the American Midwest. Antarctica and Greenland swelled and overflowed, together sucking three hundred feet of sea level into their frigid masses. These ice sheets came and went in a matter of millennia, radically transforming the planet with each revolution.

Basically, it boils down to this: the Earth has seen it all and there is little scientific doubt that until the sun explodes—engulfing the planet in burning garlands of hydrogen and helium about five billion years from now—the Earth, like the Dude, will abide.

Good story, I know, but can it help us make sense of the world we live in and the problems we face?

On the one hand, when viewed against the long gaze of geologic time, it is tempting to conclude that we are a meteor of a species, a plague of opportunistic bacteria, devastating the planet with blind greed and the reckless momentum of self-interest. In this formulation—a riff on the standard narrative of environmentalism—the Earth is the victim and humans are the agents of doom.

For example, it’s clear that humans have reshaped the planet on geologic scales of space and significance in the equivalent of a geologic instant; we live in a time for which there is no geologic analog. In a century, humans have rewound the clock four million years to the last time carbon dioxide concentrations were this high. That carbon now permeates the ever-rising oceans, and is curdling its waters into an acidic solution that threatens to unravel the marine food web. New research even shows that the Earth now spins around a slightly different axis—in the last eight years, it has readjusted to regain its balance, compensating for the rapid melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

And those are just the climate effects.

We have defiled our waterways with toxic chemicals, antibiotics, fertilizer, and waste, which eventually make their way to the sea. These pollutants mingle with the islands of garbage that spin, despondent, in the lonely gyres of the oceans. Our refuse even litters the slopes of the deepest submarine canyons, places that know nothing of human life save its plastic legacy. We have reworked the terrestrial surface of our planet with unflagging vigor, and its scars can now be seen from space. Every year, through habitat destruction, inadvertent besiegement, or explicit eradication, we drive scores of other species out of existence.

This all sounds dire. However, one could reach an alternative conclusion from juxtaposing the current state of affairs with a geologic perspective on life and disaster in the universe:

The planet Earth has survived far worse trauma than we could possibly inflict upon it.

Though we are powerful, we cannot grow ice sheets on command, we cannot summon asteroids, we cannot remove oxygen from the atmosphere and ocean or burn enough fossil fuels to raise carbon dioxide levels as high as they have been before. Even our nuclear waste, perhaps our most lasting impact, will become benign within a million years—the blink of a geologic eye (or 0.02% of Earth’s history).

Bad for the ocean, yes, but mostly bad for us. Photo: Shutterstock.

Bad for the ocean, yes, but perhaps worse for people who depend on the ocean for survival—which is all of us. (photo via Shutterstock)

Truly, the mess we’ve created is mainly a problem for us.

We need clean water to drink and bathe in. We need stable growing seasons to produce food and commodities. We need the billions of dollars in ecosystems services that biodiversity and the natural world provide, free of cost, and which we seem hell-bent on undermining. We suffer from extreme weather—just one manifestation of climate change—which causes death and destruction and economic hardship. We mourn the loss of the fisheries we drove to collapse and the coastal systems we poisoned with runoff. We face the intimidating challenge of protecting the world’s low-lying cities through fortification or, more likely, relocation.

Contrary to popular rhetoric, problems of environmental degradation and climate change are not threats to the Earth at large. They are challenges to human survival.

This does not excuse the collateral damage we’ve inflicted on other innocent species. We have certainly destroyed many forms of life, but we cannot eradicate life itself. Life crawled back from the hydrothermal vents and rodents’ nests where it weathered the catastrophes of eons past, and there is no reason to think we will stand it its way now. New life, different life will recover. Except perhaps not human life. Homo sapiens may be committed to the ranks of ephemeral fossil species that came and went in 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history. In all honesty, we’re bound there sooner or later, as nearly every species has been before us (except possibly a few primitive strains of bacteria).

If we as a species are destined to go the way of the dinosaurs at some point, then the question becomes one of temperance. Can we focus our hefty primate brains on the formidable tasks of foresight, prudence, and self-control? Can we dampen our eagerness to hasten our fate?

Scientists are hard at work trying to figure out how long we have to choose a wiser path before the costs become too great. However, there is strong consensus that the longer we wait, the more drastic our response must be. Our prodigious intellect certainly holds solutions to the predicament of our species. But first, we must abandon the charade that saving the Earth is anything more than an act of selfish necessity. If we thrive or fail, the planet will remain, just as it always has. Our selfishness may, in fact, be our only hope of surviving.

In light of this, it seems to me that we should reorient our relationship to the natural world. Don’t rally the masses to save the Earth. The Earth will be just fine. Instead, invert the rallying cry of the conservation movement: as the ironic whale has always said, “Save the humans.”

unnamedJulia Rosen will soon complete her PhD in geology at Oregon State University, where she studies ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica to learn more about climate change. She is also a freelance science writer, an outdoor enthusiast, and a lover of this beautiful, fascinating, and indestructible planet.

 

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Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new global movement for action and change!

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Tiny houses open big doors for Wisconsin’s homeless

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

In October 2012, we were jazzed to write about the tiny houses movement, and have been excited to watch it gain traction since then. Here’s an update about a new use for tiny houses being developed in the Midwest.

Homelessness is an unfortunate fact in our society, and one we consistently struggle to understand and address. In Madison, Wisconsin, a group called OM Build has a new take on the issue—and it happens to be tiny. Say hello to…

Tiny houses!

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Too cute! One of OM Build’s tiny houses.
(photo courtesy Lauren Wagner)

These 99-square foot houses are built cheaply and without a need for serious, specialized construction skills. OM Build is betting they’ll help address the need for homeless housing in Madison and change the conversation around homelessness in the city.

Based on a similar project in Portland, Oregon, these tiny houses (for now) must be moved every 48 hours to comply with a city ordinance. (Good thing they’re built on wheels!) OM Build—which grew out of the Occupy movement in Madison last January (OM stands for Occupy Madison)—has been working with community leaders to change laws and make a more permanent “tiny village” possible. Not only would this alleviate the burden for residents of having to literally move house every two days, it would make it easier for people to form a community of neighbors.

As Brenda Konkel of OM Build says, “We started out doing this for homeless folks, but our ultimate goal is an eco-village where there are equal amounts of people who are formerly homeless and not.”

What makes it work?

  • The houses are cheap to build (around $5,000 per unit), easy to construct, and mobile.
  • Propane tanks for heat and pole-mounted solar panels for lighting make tiny house living both more affordable and environmentally friendly than many alternatives.
  • They are super cute and colorful—downright attractive! As Brenda puts it, “People don’t like tents.”
  • People approved to live in the houses contribute sweat equity toward their future homes (see the whole application process). This gives them work experience and a bigger emotional stake in caring for their new residence.
  • The project also appeals to people who are not homeless but who want to live in a more eco-friendly way. Garnering interest from multiple sides of the community is helping OM Build to crowdsource its ideas and tasks, and gain momentum across a wide audience.

Growing OM Build

OM Build completed its first two houses in the second half of last year, and house number three is currently in the works. They’ve also established a board of directors, of which half the members are homeless. They’re meeting with public officials regularly to get help navigating some legal red tape, and their offer to purchase a property where tiny houses could be parked permanently was recently accepted.

So far, OM Build has run on roughly $30,000 in donations. With the proceeds from an online fundraising campaign planned for this year and a recently-held silent auction, they hope to up their game.

Interested?

Tiny houses offer us a new way to look at an old problem. They give us a chance to use public space in a different, helpful way, and provide a real, physical tool with which we can counter homelessness.

They also remind us that good things can come in small packages.

To learn more about OM Build’s tiny house project, visit their website, or check out their campaign on Indiegogo.

Linkedin #1-1

 

Jordan Kifer is the co-founder of the “Art Is” project and a graduate of the University of Michigan where she completed her thesis, “Como Ser Afro-Latino/a? Examining Afro- and Latino/a Identities in the United States.” Jordan is a regular contributor to INSIGHT Magazine and works as a development assistant for Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

 

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Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new global movement for action and change!

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Fight for Light: Bringing clean, green awareness to black campuses

Happy January! Welcome to Clean Start week.

There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of organizations working to increase awareness of climate change. If you take a step back though, it’s apparent that there are quite a few issues and population segments that are underrepresented in the environmental community.

One of these issues is how climate change affects people of color and the poor, and one of the most underrepresented groups of people in the environmental sector is African Americans.

Due to heat waves and air pollution in cities and increasing energy and food prices, climate change is poised to have a disproportionately large and negative effect on the urban African American community. African Americans are also generally underrepresented in the staff of environmental organizations, both public and private.

In 2009, Markese Bryant and John Jordan saw these growing problems as a call to raise awareness of environmental issues among African Americans. Then students at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, they teamed up and formed Fight for Light, which works “to transform Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) into hubs for environmental sustainability and social innovation.”

Almost five years later, Markese and John are the leaders of a thriving nonprofit organization that’s inspiring campus leaders across the nation to become more environmentally active.

How did they do it?

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John Jordan, left, and Markese Bryant.
(photo via fightforlight.org)

Find something you care about

It may seem obvious, but it’s essential to devote your time to an issue that really resonates with you. If you plan on turning an idea into something concrete, you’ll have to be prepared to spend a lot of time working on it.

Before they formed Fight for Light, Markese and John had been concerned about the environment as well as the lack of African American representation in many professional settings. After reading The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, Markese and John became interested in the idea of a “Green New Deal,” which would help lift people out of poverty while also encouraging the use of alternative energy sources and promoting conservation. Knowing this was something they could feel good about putting time into, they moved onto the next step.

Start small

Once Markese and John decided what to focus on, they wanted to get right to work. However, they were both still undergraduates, and couldn’t immediately invest all their energy into Fight for Light. So they started with small steps, first entering a nationwide student business competition and collaborating with organizations that shared their vision.

In 2010, Markese partnered with Green for All and helped develop the College Ambassador Program. This program encourages young leaders at 15 HBCUs to become advocates around the environmental issues that affect their communities. One year later, John began to manage a large grant given to Morehouse by the National Science Foundation, which helped Fight for Light encourage sustainability among the student body and also led to him managing student engagement at Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University.

Somehow in that mix, Markese also found the time to team up with Green for All to film this music video:

Get support

All their efforts eventually led to a big reward. In 2012, Markese and John were selected as Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellows in recognition of their several years of slow but steady awareness-raising about environmental issues on HBCU campuses. With the fellowship came financial help and the freedom to turn Fight for Light into something bigger.

Expand

With the support provided by Echoing Green, Markese and John are now increasing the reach of Fight for Light across the country. Markese recently traveled to Nashville to serve as a keynote speaker at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference, while both Markese and John traveled with students from the Atlanta University Center to the Power Shift 2013 conference in Pittsburgh.

As Fight for Light makes new contacts and continues to expand outside of the Atlanta metro area, its core mission remains the same. Every day, more students at HBCUs come into contact with the organization, and each new supporter is a fresh voice in the environmental awareness movement.

Your turn

How can you get involved? If you’re interested in raising awareness of environmental issues, particularly at HBCUs, just get in contact with Markese or John. If you like what Fight for Light is doing, follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

What other organizations or people do you know who are addressing issues at the intersection of climate change and minority communities?

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Try this! Open a “pay-what-you-can” café and nourish your neighbors

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

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One Acre Cafe is just weeks away from their grand opening.
(photo via OAC Facebook)

When Jan Orchard read stories to her first-grade students, they seemed fidgety—even for seven-year-olds. On mornings when she brought in blueberry muffins, though, they paid much more attention to her.

“They were hungry,” she says.

That’s when she started to understand just how much food insecurity was affecting her community in Johnson City, Tennessee—and decided to do something about it. Last year, she quit her teaching job to open One Acre Café, a “pay what you can” restaurant that’s just a few weeks away from turning on its ovens.

For Jan, the most exciting part about One Acre Café is how the community has come together over the past year to help open its doors. Its existence is owed to the culmination of over 1,000 volunteer hours and $80,000 worth of donated equipment, building materials, and labor.

“Someone donated a $15,000 granite countertop, the plumbing company donated a toilet, a tile company donated all the tile for the bathrooms, and a furniture company donated couches for our lounge,” she says.

Even though all these donations are going towards a charitable café, it’s not going to be a “free” restaurant.

“The idea behind the café is that everyone can contribute something. People are asked to invest in a resource for their community in exchange for their time, and for that, they’ll be fed,” she says.

Payment for a meal comes in the form either of a cash donation ($4, $6, or $8 depending on portion size) or as one hour of volunteer time doing something like rolling silverware, serving food, or greeting patrons.

Beyond being a great place to go and eat, Jan dreams of making One Acre Café a gathering place in the community where people can have interesting conversations and connect with one another.

“What happens when people lose their jobs is that they get deeper and deeper in debt and they become ashamed to go out into the community,” she says. “The idea behind the café is that there should be a neighborhood place where everyone is welcome to come and enjoy a nice meal and have a good conversation without feeling uncomfortable or ashamed about whether or not they have a lot of money.”

How you can replicate it

1. Use a model

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The site of One Acre Café is a former bar and vacant building in downtown Johnson City which has been a real “fixer-upper.”
(photo via OAC Facebook)

Early in the planning stages for One Acre Café, Jan reached out to the One World Everybody Eats Foundation (OWEE), a nonprofit dedicated to fighting food insecurity by helping people start pay-what-you-can restaurants.

They offer best practices, mentorship, and “start-up” kits (basically a ‘paint by numbers’ on how to start a community restaurant) to people who are interested in starting one in their community.

2. Ask other community restaurants for advice

Part of the OWEE model is that once you’re up and running, you should be there to mentor other people who also want to start a community restaurant. One Acre Café had a lot of guidance from the F.A.R.M. Café in Boone, Tennessee.

“What makes these cafés different from other restaurants is that they’re not in competition with one another, they’re trying to help one another,” Jan says.

3. Follow up with people who offer help

Jan’s benefited greatly from believing that when people want to help out, you should let them.

A year ago when she was first getting started, she held a community meeting and silent auction to help get the word out about her plans. At the meeting, she put out some volunteer forms.

Jan was able to grow OAC’s strong volunteer base by calling up everybody who filled out a form.

One of their volunteers, a construction worker named Ernest, has put in a lot of time helping with renovations and monitoring construction permits. But you can tell he’s getting excited about opening day because he has more on his mind than the construction projects. He stopped Jan a few weeks ago with an important question:

“A bunch of the guys here wanted me to make sure you were gonna serve some nice hearty soups and stews with good bread.”

Jan assured him, yes, they’d make sure to have some on the menu.

Are you interested in setting up a community restaurant in your area? Reach out to the One World Everybody Eats Foundation at community@oneworldeverybodyeats.org.

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Realism over reverence: A loveable soil nerd’s advice for sustainable activism

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

James Cassidy harvesting lettuce with his OSU growers club members at their student farm in Corvallis, Oregon.

James Cassidy harvesting lettuce with his OSU growers club members at their student farm in Corvallis, Oregon. (Photo via Facebook)

James Cassidy, a soil sciences instructor and faculty advisor to one of the longest-running organic student farms in the country, comes into his office at Oregon State University wearing a t-shirt that says “eat locals.” It shows a zombie chasing a guy on a tractor.

I’m here today to talk with James about food, sustainability, and the little things we can all do to make a difference in our food system. Now that there are so many different food organizations, sustainable farming projects, and trendy restaurants, the myriad of all things we “should” do when it comes to food can be overwhelming.

“A lot of people think you’re supposed to convert to sustainability like you have to join this religion or something,” James says. “But the creation of real lasting change isn’t about going full blast, it’s about doing little things over a long period of time. That’s what sustainability really means—an action that is possible for you to sustain for a long time.”

Doing small, reasonable acts to participate in sustainable food systems—like eating a little less meat than you might normally, or buying vegetables at a farmer’s market once a month—might not seem like much. But if enough people did these little things, it would make a big difference.

“If we could snap our fingers and get everybody to eat 5% less meat and 2% more whole grains, we could change the entire agricultural system overnight.”

It’s maybe not as sexy as becoming a full-blown urban homesteader with chickens and pickles and homemade soap, but that’s the point.

"Eat food, not rocks," says James.

“Eat food, not rocks.” (Photo via Facebook)

“Look, change is slow. And it’s not very dramatic or exciting. So you have to build activism into your life in a reasonable way,” he says. “The activism itself has to be sustainable.”

Less guilt, more fun

Having a whole bunch of fun helps too, he adds. Especially when it comes to mobilizing volunteers or starting community projects related to sustainability.

“You have to give an incentive for people to be there, not just tell them that they really ‘should.’ You gotta get the BBQ in there, you gotta get some music, you gotta make it actually fun and they’ll actually want to come. Less strict ‘eat your vegetables’ guilt-tripping and more birthday cake.”

Prioritizing reality over reverence has helped Cassidy’s student garden come into its own. In the early stages, he saw a lot of students sitting around having philosophical conversations about communities. It was too grand, too hypothetical. People kept dropping out because they weren’t having fun.

Now kids come out to the garden for a few minutes to pull weeds, have a warm meal together, and then get back to whatever else they want to do. It’s no pressure, and that works better for busy students who are more likely to come by if it’s not a huge commitment—and if they’re getting food out of the deal.

“Look, communities happen, they’re not built. And they happen if there’s a reason for them to happen. So if you can provide some reason or some opportunity for it—for us it was serving dinner to people who come to help—then you give it a chance to form itself.”

I ask him if there’s one thing he would want everybody on the planet to do or think about to help us become more sustainable. The simplicity of his answer surprises me.

“I think that every single person who lives on this planet Earth should put a seed into soil and water it and put it under a light or in the sun at least once a year. If everybody participated in this little tiny ritual, it would remind us how life on our planet actually works—seeds going into a porous media and swelling and growing and becoming something out of nothing. I think if everyone did this, it would actually improve people’s lives and change their perspective. I think it’s really as simple as that.”

If you need some inspiration for having fun and expressing ‘what’s on your mind,’ check out this Information Society video (NOTE: that’s James on the left with the big blue bass).

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Planting the seeds of change: How Veterans to Farmers helps vets turn over a new leaf

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

cuttingtomatoes2

Veterans to Farmers provides job opportunities for veterans and fresh, locally-produced food for communities.
(photo via modernfarmer.com)

Buck Adams started hiring veterans to work in his greenhouses because it just made so much sense. For veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, a greenhouse is a natural decompression chamber.

“There’s daylight, natural life, no hustle and bustle besides the hum of fans and water flowing so it’s tranquil and peaceful. The natural process of seeing life and nurturing life and growing something that feeds others—I think that helps the brain heal itself,” he says.

A former U.S. Marine Corps Security Forces NCO who’s been around agriculture his whole life—his parents raised chickens on contract for Tyson in Arkansas—Buck describes seeing the effects of the greenhouse on vets as an “a-ha!” moment. He knew he had to share the stability and security he found in sustainable agriculture with others, so he founded the Denver-area nonprofit Veterans to Farmers in 2012. 

The journey to get there was winding. After returning from the service, Buck bounced around for a few years before learning about the growing importance of localized food systems and energy conservation—and how the U.S. lags behind in using new technology to grow food in clean, efficient ways (for example, Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)—the method his greenhouses use, wherein plants are grown aeroponically and hydroponically in a highly controlled greenhouse environment, maximizing output and resources while minimizing waste, pests, and diseases).

Buck used this knowledge to found Circle Fresh Farms in 2009, which is now Colorado’s largest hydro-organic greenhouse grower. If you’ve bought organic tomatoes from Whole Foods, there’s a good chance they came from the Circle Fresh network.

buck-adams

Buck Adams in one of his greenhouses.
(photo courtesy of VTF)

To share the opportunities he found in farming with his fellow veterans, Buck made it part of his company’s policy to hire vets in 2011.

VTF grew from this decision; today they work to train vets in horticulture and business management to provide communities with fresh, healthy food and veterans with a chance to gain the skills they need to start or manage greenhouse businesses of their own. At least three graduates of the VTF program have gone on to start (or are in the process of starting) their own farms. 

It’s a perfect match, as there’s a lot of overlap between the skills and training gained in the military and those it takes to monitor a CEA greenhouse.

“The controlled environment runs on highly regimented standard operating procedures which vets are used to,” Buck says. “They’re paying close attention to their work, and their military training overlaps very well with this kind of growing… It’s a natural transition.”

VTF is now working on building a national agricultural and business management training center for vets in downtown Denver. This facility will also serve as the site of a vet-owned farming co-op which will provide fresh, organic vegetables to the surrounding community through CSA memberships.

It might sound simple, but starting his own greenhouse business and nonprofit wasn’t easy, and Buck faces funding challenges as this major commercial project develops in the coming year. They’re launching a Kickstarter campaign this Veterans Day to help bring the project to fruition.

Despite the busy year ahead, he keeps at it. He attributes his success to combining good ideas, good timing, and a lot of hard work.

From there, “It’s just grown organically,” he jokes.

In the past, we’ve blogged about an all-volunteer veteran disaster relief organization, a veteran who volunteers with a blind baseball team, and a veteran healing project.

What other organizations, companies, or individuals are working to help veterans readjust to civilian life?

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Staff spotlight: Sandy Cheiten and English education in Vietnam

In this series, we’re highlighting Idealist staff members who’ve made their ideas happen. Today’s spotlight is on Sandy Cheiten, a consultant who’s helping us develop a new project in New York. Sandy has lots of amazing stories; here’s one about how she helped turn a broad intention into a specific success.

In 1992, I was working in multimedia education at ABC News in New York. One day, I got a call from a friend who said he knew someone interested in starting an educational project and asked if I’d talk to her.

When I first met the woman with the idea, the journalist Barbara Stewart, she came to my formal, corporate office wearing a sweatshirt, sneakers, and jeans. She said she wanted to start an educational project of some sort in Vietnam, but she didn’t know what.

“Just come to Hanoi with me and we’ll meet with some people and figure something out!” she said.

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Sandy, top left, and Barbara in Vietnam with some colleagues in the mid-1990s.

I was quite intrigued, as I had concentrated on southeast Asian studies in college and graduate school and had been a peace activist during the Vietnam War. Though it seemed a little crazy—I knew nothing about Barbara and we had no plan—I couldn’t turn down a free ticket to Hanoi. I had been to Vietnam during the war, but had never made it to Hanoi, and was so curious to see how the country had changed in the almost 20 years since the war ended.

As soon as we landed, we went straight to the Ministry of Education and introduced ourselves, then posed this question: if we could raise money for anything they needed, what would it be? They said they wanted English language textbooks for their schools. They knew that Vietnam was on the cusp of change in many ways, and among other goals, they wanted their children to learn English well so that they’d be ready to engage with other world economies whenever the U.S. trade embargo ended.

Now what?

When we came back to the U.S., we established BAVE, the Business Alliance for Vietnamese Education, applied for 501(c)(3) status, and hired a fundraiser. Through a number of trips over the next two years, we worked out a plan with the Ministry of Ed to produce the books; everything was decided in complete collaboration. I have no idea why they trusted us; maybe they actually didn’t. We were just so unusual, these two American women landing there unannounced, wanting to help.

For our fundraising strategy, we decided we’d form an exclusive club wherein our members—all corporations—had to donate at least one million dollars each. That might sound far-fetched, but it worked. Our fundraiser pitched to a bunch of companies that having their names on all these textbooks would introduce them to Vietnamese consumers, so that when the embargo was lifted (which turned out to be in 1994), they’d already be familiar and trusted brands. It really was a win-win.

The first order of business after we got our initial million-dollar gift was training a group of Vietnamese educators; we brought them to the U.S. for curriculum development and teacher training. When that was over, we raised more money and sent them back to Hanoi to draft and design the textbooks, and we rented a house for them all to live in while they did it.

The value of patience

It took a number of years to write and illustrate the books, which wound up being the country’s first color textbooks. We traveled with the Ministry of Ed to many regions in the country to pilot and evaluate the books in each setting. We eventually sent them to Hong Kong to be edited.

Finally, in the late ’90s, our first books were widely produced and distributed. We had a big launch event at the Hanoi Opera House. We were all over all the news. Everyone thought it was terrific because it showed the coming of a new age: the war was over, and our two countries could now work on a mutually beneficial project together.

Soon we realized that adults were using the books, too. And, with some additional funding, we worked with Vietnam Television (VTV) to produce an animated series that mirrored them.

My involvement started to taper off in the early 2000s, when the TV series was beginning. I had started a different job, and we had handed the reigns of the project off to VTV; it seemed like the right time to step away. But I had and still have a great sense of accomplishment about it, and am happy to say the books and shows continue to be produced today.


Watch this adorable BAVE video.
 

There were constant challenges, of course.

1. Disagreement
I love Barbara and we’re still friends to this day, but we’re very different and there were many times when we both had strong opinions—about how to work with the Ministry, for example, or what language to use in a certain place in the textbook—and we really argued.

Solution: No matter how much we quarreled over certain points, we always came to a final agreement and got back to business because, at heart, we had the same goal and intention—to see this project through and be of some help. That commitment never wavered, and it carried the day.

2. Logistics of working overseas
It would be very hot and we’d have no air conditioning, or there would be a monsoon rain or no heat in the winter, so you’d get soaked or freeze. And the language barrier, the time difference, and, back then, the absence of email… We faxed a lot of things, but that was difficult because of the money and technology restraints there. Also, sometimes people just wouldn’t show up for meetings, and it would be so frustrating because we were always working on a tight schedule when we were there.

Solution: We crossed each bridge as we came to it: hiring translators, scheduling calls at odd hours, buying people things like fax machines. Those expenditures became part of our budget. Just take obstacles one at a time, be patient and persistent, and allow that some idiosyncratic expenses might work their way into your plan.

3. Shifting cultural context
Sometimes it was just disorienting adjusting to a place where old and new were intersecting so dynamically. The country was changing before our eyes.

Solution: We just tried to appreciate it all. We got to see and make a very small contribution to these enormous changes that were bringing a country we were not long ago at war with to being an active trading partner on the world stage. It was exhilarating to witness the progress. They had a vision for their country, and you could see it taking shape everywhere.

Are you as blown away by Sandy’s story as we are? She welcomes your questions and comments below, or feel free to send her a message through Idealist.

 

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How an Irish nonprofit is helping kids be green

Leprechauns. Frothy mugs of green beer. Four-leaf clovers. Whether you celebrate it or not, these are likely the first images that pop in your head when you think of St. Patrick’s Day. But these universal symbols for the Irish holiday aren’t the only green products Ireland has to offer.

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Two boys create a completed circuit in Rediscovery Centre course on green energy.

Green businesses have grown in Ireland over the past few years. From small-scale organic farming programs to larger businesses manufacturing new wind power technology, environmentally sustainable projects in Ireland are both diverse and original.

One nonprofit in particular, Eastern Ireland’s Rediscovery Centre, has geared its environmental efforts towards the next generation of green thinkers by bringing waste reduction and sustainability tools into the classroom by partnering with teachers in schools across the region. Fortunately, the Irish government encourages primary schools teach a certain amount of classes focused on waste reduction and biodiversity through its Green Schools Program.

And it’s anything but dull. With sessions spent constructing terrariums or cooking with a homemade solar ovens, the center’s staff know how to make environmental education captivating for a range of ages. And based on student and teacher surveys that praise their alternative style of education, their method is working.

But it wasn’t always a breeze.

When the Rediscovery Centre first created its education program (it also serves as a store for recycled paint, restored furniture and eco products) in 2006, the staff had a simple framework for its classes—but needed in-class experience to truly understand what its students needed.

“It’s always been easier with the primary schools. They love the hands-on learning style and are willing to learn,” says Tara Singleton, manager of research and education at the organization. “But once the students get older, they’re sometimes too cool for school. They are more stubborn.”

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Students learn the ins and outs of recycling with a life-size Chutes and Ladders board game.

So her staff has to modify each lesson by age group, making the topic something both relatable and appealing to the students. The program’s Executive Manager, Sarah Miller, adds that education disparities within an age group can even create issue within a classroom.

“Some schools have engaged in quite comprehensive environmental awareness raising before they book a workshop, whereas others haven’t,” she says. “In order to deal with this we have developed a range of workshop activities and additional teaching aids.”

Working with teachers, who best know how the individual students work in a school setting, tends to be the quickest way to plan a lesson.

“It really depends on the teacher,” Singleton says. “Some are really welcoming to our program, and want to help us make our class work for their students, but others don’t seek us out.”

Which is another battle altogether. How does the staff make their resources attractive to public school teachers?

With classes based solely on these topics, the center has no trouble winning teachers over. For secondary classrooms, however, staff has to work harder to align its classes with topics covered in the school courses.

“We try to pair science and geography lessons up with our classes, but it’s not as simple as with the younger grades,” she says. “There’s less incentive there.”

But by dealing with these obstacles from the get-go, the center has been able to secure its roots in the surrounding community.

“We often get calls from delighted schools that have used our lessons throughout the school year,” says Singleton. “They say ‘look what we’ve done!’ Sure, it’s a hard slog to start up something like, but the interest is there. It’s worth it!”

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 Want to learn more about how to engage children in learning about sustainability and the environment? Feel free to contact Tara Singleton at tara@rediscoverycentre.ie and Sarah Miller at sarah@rediscoverycentre.ie.

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Step by step: Barefoot College brings rural ideas to a global sphere

Thirty years ago, in the small northwest Indian village of Tilonia, a rundown tuberculosis sanatorium lay vacant—its collection of once-crowded buildings gathering sand and bleaching to white in the desert sun.

Now, after an inspired rejuvenation, the 45-acre campus is home to one of the most successful education centers in the world: The Barefoot College.

Built in the 70s as a platform to empower local poverty-stricken villagers by sharing regional  skills (like farming, building, and manufacturing using local resources) and traditional knowledge, the Barefoot College now serves as a model of rural higher education throughout India and the world.

From teaching residents how to build successful and lo-tech water supply schemes to creating powerful working roles for women in communities where most jobs are left to the men, the college has sparked a shift in education tactics on both a local and global scale.

But what helped this small institution become so powerful? According to the college’s extremely modest and media-shy founder Bunker Roy, it all comes down to maintaining a solid focus throughout the development and growth of the organization.

Getting schooled 

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A woman at the Tilonia Barefoot College campus works on a solar engineering project. (Photo by UN Women Gallery via Flicker Creative Commons)

In 1972, a small group of young professionals started the college with the intention of melding the minds of urban professionals, who were educated in a modern college setting, with poverty-stricken villagers, who were skilled in traditional tasks passed down through generations in their small community.

Bringing these two seemingly opposite pockets of educated individuals together could widen the minds of both groups, thus upending the hierarchical, wealth-based education system for the best, the staff thought.

This progressive model worked—but only for so long.

Changing the syllabus 

A decade after the college’s start, most of the urbanites had returned to financially secure jobs in metropolitan centers, leaving the villagers in complete control of the campus.

Thus began a new phase in the college’s direction. Cut off from external aid, the students boosted their self-sufficiency as a community, relying on their new-found knowledge of external technologies (solar energy and clean water systems) and already embedded traditional wisdom.

The women of Tilonia began to install solar panels in the college’s roofs, significantly cutting back on the village’s electricity bills. Teachers reintroduced puppetry, a past traditional teaching tool, into classrooms that once were struggling under western education-based lesson plans. They were pulling themselves out of a rut with the simple trust in their own developed skills.

Roy saw this as a substantial turning point in the school’s metamorphosis.

“This is one of the Barefoot College’s greatest accomplishments—to reduce dependency on the urban professionals and demonstrate the capacity and competence of the poorest of the poor,” Roy said.

The original idea of the college, to acknowledge traditional skill-sharing education platforms, had essentially remained the same, aside from shedding the urban influence. Which turned out to be precisely what Roy had wanted it to be.

“For an unemployed and unemployable semi-literate rural youth to be providing a vital service in a village, effectively replacing a urban trained paper-qualified doctor, teacher, and water engineer is a totally revolutionary idea,” Roy said.

This twist in focus helped steer the college onto the expanding path it’s on today.

Teaching by example

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At a 2008 Pop!Tech conference, Bunker Roy shows how the college uses traditional educational tools, like puppetry, to teach. (Photo by Pop!Tech via Flick Creative Commons)

The college has inspired 20 similar schools to pop up across India, and works with small, impoverished villages across Africa and the Middle East to train locals in creating their own similarly founded campuses.

More than 200 semi-literate people have been trained in solar engineering for village energy sources and 500,000 now have access to safe drinking water through an array of hand pumps and rainwater catchment systems designed by students.

And, many times, the students become the teachers. Recently, outside professionals have visited the Barefoot College to learn traditional construction techniques from skilled villagers to use in urban settings.

Locally, struggling villages have found a new sense of economic stability and self-respect through the college’s efforts.

“It has been the job of the Barefoot College to provide that critical space for the poor to grow from ‘no-human beings’ in the eyes of so-called civilized society to a responsible, respected and accepted ‘barefoot’ professional,” Roy said.

But while the college has found sturdy ground in Tilonia and across the globe, Roy said that the idea to create a new type of rural education system was fated to be a challenging push against the norm.

However, his original intentions have anything but diminished.

“It is an eternal struggle,” Roy said. “But the struggle and the challenge make it worthwhile knowing that it’s making a tangible difference.”

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How one company is bringing the farmers market to you

Each day, people like you have ideas on how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put their ideas into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling social entrepreneurs who are tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

The idea

Here in Portland, Oregon, farmers markets are as common as bearded guys on bikes. I know I’m lucky, and I try to go to the one nearby my house every Sunday. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. So I end up buying produce at my local supermarket. And almost always, the tomatoes and peppers I buy are pricier, and just not as fresh.

Screenshot of an online farmers market.

But what if I could get what I needed delivered to the Idealist office every week?

That’s the idea behind Farmigo, a startup that’s disrupting the traditional industrial food complex as we know it.

It works like this: you, or someone else, starts a food community at a workplace, school, community center, or anywhere you visit daily. As a member of that community, you go online to the Farmigo website and choose what seasonal items from local farmers you’d like to buy: meat, fish, vegetables, baked goods, coffee, and more. The farmers then deliver the goods on a designated pick-up day. No chemicals, no handling, no middleman – and your dinner is as fresh as a chicken’s egg.

“For the person who understands the value of eating healthy but is not able to access enough healthy food, Farmigo just made it easier,” says founder Benzi Ronen. “For the folks who have wanted to get involved and become part of the solution, Farmigo provides concrete steps to take action.”

For the farmers, logistics aren’t as worrisome anymore. “Traditionally farmers are good at growing food, and sometimes we need help with marketing, sales, information management, and more,” says Nick Papadopoulos from California’s Bloomfield Farms Organics. “Farmigo is helping alleviate a whole host of pain points for us.”

Since becoming a part of Farmigo six months ago, Bloomfield Farms Organics has been able to connect with a whole new audience both online and offline  — more people have been attending their U-Pick Sundays, for example — as well as fostered collaborations with other farmers. When Nick meets with other farmers in the state, he asks questions, shares best practices, and bonds over the shared Farmigo identity.

This all sounds good and all but you might be thinking, What about the other food systems out there?

“Farmigo complements the farmers markets and CSAs by appealing to a segment of the population that were looking for fresh-from-harvest food in a more convenient fashion. Farmigo stands on the shoulders of giants; farmers markets and CSAs,”  says Benzi.

Obstacles

A couple years ago, Benzi, a decade-long Internet entrepreneur and executive, was about to start a family. “I started thinking, What kind of food did we want to have in the house to feed our baby?” he says.

Between awareness about eating healthier on the rise, the Internet reaching a tipping point where almost everyone is connected, including farmers, and social networks empowering people to influence one another, it seemed the perfect time to launch such a company.

Still, Benzi had challenges getting Farmigo up and running:

Obstacle: Lack of knowledge about farming
Solution: While Benzi’s previous experience included building software for CSAs, he admittedly didn’t know the first thing about harvesting crops. So he went around the country to 100’s of farms and spent countless hours talking with farmers about their challenges and issues. He then created technical solutions based on those conversations.

“I’m not a fan of working in an ivory tower. I believe in quick iterations. I interviewed 20 farmers, created mock-ups, interviewed 20 more, created more mock-ups, interviewed the next 20, got more feedback. Now we are taking the same approach to figure out the best possible experience for the consumer,” he says.

Fresh seasonal produce from Monkshood Nursery in NY, a local Farmigo farm.

Obstacle: Setting up food communities
Solution: Not a fan of cold calling, Benzi’s strategy is to instead find and coach hyperlocal food evangelists who are willing to kickstart a community where they are.

He’s met with success, as companies have started to use Farmigo as a way to show staff appreciation. Brooklyn-based social media agency Carrot Creative, for example, sponsors $10 toward each Farmigo purchase as a wellness benefit. Microfinance organization Kiva orders office snacks from Farmigo, and gives credit on the site as a work incentive.

Obstacle: Cultural attitudes about online ordering
Solution: Nowadays most of us order almost everything online from books to plane tickets to flowers. But produce is still lagging, despite services like FreshDirect and Peapod.

“The way we’re tackling this is not trying to get whole world to shift and buy online. We’re focusing on gaining widespread adoption within many small communities,” says Benzi.

To get people in the habit of buying kale with the click of a button, the Farmigo team helps communities host cooking classes, recipe contests, nutritional speakers, and more, continually directing them to the online component. With farmers, it’s proving to be the reverse.

“We’re seeing that farming is now becoming the new cool profession. College graduates are excited to plow the earth but they also want to be entrepreneurs and have control of their business” he says. “These young farmers are Internet savvy and know how to use online media, social networks, and mobile applications to connect directly with their consumers. They’re pushing us to build better technological solutions for their needs.”

Obstacle: Making time for family
Solution: Benzi has one daughter, with another child on the way. “A lot of people think starting a family and raising kids are obstacles. It’s not an excuse. If you’re passionate about something, then go out and do it,” he says. It helps that he has an understanding wife who is as entrepreneurial as he is, and he’s careful not to schedule meetings during his daughter’s bathtimes or mealtimes.

Advice

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Farmigo food community delivery in action.

While only in NY and CA for now, the Farmigo family is ever-growing. Soon, they’ll be expanding to other U.S. cities and releasing a knowledge hub for farmers.

A seasoned entrepreneur, here’s how Benzi thinks you can move forward on your idea:

  1. Since entrepreneurs are naturally optimistic, have a naysayer on board. “Make sure you have a co-founder or life partner who is critical of your ideas and pushes you to tests assumptions,” says Benzi.
  2. If you have a critical component to your success, it’s important to have multiple alternatives. If you have a partner who is absolutely crucial, have a back-up. Have two customers? Have a third ready. “It makes you much stronger. Because things will always go wrong,” he says.
  3. Enjoy the process. With Benzi’s other ventures, it was all about the end goal of creating a company. “In my last start-up there were long periods of time that weren’t fun. It sounds cliché, but this time around it’s about the journey itself,” he says.

“Farmigo’s mission is about making healthy food accessible to all households – this is something that has a benefit for society,” he finally says. “We hire our team members based on passion for our mission. This is a long and hard journey and we need people who are inspired to pour their hearts into this every day.”

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Ready to kickstart a Farmigo community of your own at your workplace, school, or community center? Get started here

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