11 Solutions to Halting the Environmental Crisis
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
You probably don't need to be told that the threat of climate change is real. If you're concerned about the issue, it's fairly easy to conjure the apocalyptic scenes of widespread drought, frequent deadly storms, mass hunger, and wars over natural resources like oil and water. Much harder to come by are examples of positive actions that can avert these disasters and ease the crisis in places where they are already in play. So let's skip the litany of catastrophes that await if global warming is not controlled. Instead, why not focus on some solutions? None are perfect or complete, but each offers a model of positive change that is more than theoretically possible -- it is already happening.
Many of these examples are small-scale and local. That's instructive because our best hope for sustainability -- in agriculture, industry, energy, community design, and government -- may lie in local, small-scale models like some of those presented here. It may seem as though large-scale problems require large-scale solutions. But most big institutions and processes are driven by the very people and ideas that have generated our global crisis. It's in the local and the small that the majority of people can exercise agency and decision-making power.
While we may not be looking to create large-scale models of every success story, we do need to replicate, adapt, and institutionalize what works for people, communities, and the environment. We need to link local initiatives and build on them by enacting policies that can sustain their momentum.
To overcome our global environmental crisis, we need solutions that are at once visionary and concrete. Here are some of the many innovations that are ours to develop.
1. What if women -- the majority of the world's farmers -- could resist the commercialization of agriculture and strengthen food-centered economies?
When the World Bank forced Kenyan farmers to start growing tea for export instead of food, Kenyan women took the lead in resisting those policies. Through their Green Belt Movement, the women planted over 40 million trees to offset deforestation caused by tea plantations and created initiatives to promote sustainable farming. Today, the Green Belt Movement includes hundreds of thousands of rural people across Africa.
2. What if poor rural families were given land so that they could grow their own food?
Through mass civil disobedience and political organizing, the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) in Brazil succeeded in overturning government policy and securing 15 million acres of farmland for 250,000 families. The families' average income is now four times the minimum wage. Infant mortality is half the national average and many MST settlements are models of sustainable agriculture.
3. What if Indigenous Peoples' collective rights were recognized, ending the attack on those who have managed and maintained the world's most delicate ecosystems for millennia?
This year saw a major step in this direction with the passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration recognizes Indigenous Peoples' right to control their territories and resources, which hold much of the Earth's remaining biodiversity and half its untapped fossil fuels. Now, Indigenous women are working to ensure that governments honor the Declaration.
4. What if economic policies recognized that preserving the environment was more important than obtaining fossil fuels?
Ecuador's President Correa has announced that he will not drill for oil in Yasuni National Park. The decision marks the first time an oil-producing country has formally chosen to forgo oil exploration and shift its economy from oil dependency to more sustainable alternatives that protect ecosystems and Indigenous rights while averting more global carbon emissions.
5. What if governments valued people's happiness over economic growth?
The government of Bhutan has replaced the singular, narrow standard of Gross Domestic Product with a measure it calls Gross National Happiness. Bhutan is not a utopia, but it has made remarkable progress in building its economy while preserving the environment, limiting corruption, and supporting education and healthcare. Life expectancy in Bhutan has risen by 19 years since the "happiness index" was established in 1972.
6. What if genuine democracy -- the precondition for policies that benefit people over profits -- were to flourish?
In the past eight years, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Bolivia have elected governments that are forging alternatives to US-led corporate globalization. The Indigenous and social movements that brought these governments to power are not just reforming, but redefining the state through a shift from representative democracy (easily controlled by elites) to participatory democracy, where power is devolved to communities and the principle of majority rule with minority rights is upheld.
7. What if we could redress the forced impoverishment of the Global South?
Debt cancellation, carbon fees, and international taxes on arms sales and on profits derived from financial speculation are some of the complex yet concrete proposals at hand. Communities around the world have formed a broad movement working to craft debt cancellation policies that can support national sovereignty and women's human rights. Not long ago, it seemed impossible. Today, debt cancellation has been partially implemented and is squarely on the agenda of economic policymakers.
8. What if climate change could be stopped?
Climate change can be stopped, with existing technologies, if governments use their prerogative to regulate and tax corporations so that they limit resource use and generate funds for sustainable development. According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have the know-how to reduce global carbon emissions by 26 billion tons by 2030 -- that's more than enough to avoid the 2-degree Celsius rise in temperatures that would bring on the worst consequences of global warming.
9. What if governments realized that striving for limitless economic growth is not a solution, but a cause of poverty and ecological collapse?
Thailand has pioneered a "sufficiency economy," based on low growth to reduce poverty and conserve natural resources. The model aims to promote economic self-reliance, rural development, and environmental protection. According to the Thai government, "during these times of rapid globalization and global warming, emphasizing moderation, responsible consumption, and resilience to external shocks is of great relevance not just to Thailand but to countries and communities across the world."
10. What if we saw the need to de-industrialize our societies as an opportunity, not a crisis?
In the UK, "transition towns" are creating new modes of locally rooted agriculture, commerce, energy, transportation, housing, and government that are the building blocks of a "post-carbon future." This "transition movement" holds that the need to consume less oil can lead to a healthier, happier future in places where the shift is well-planned, locally grounded, and democratic. Sweden has announced its intention to be oil-free by 2020, and Finland may soon follow. Cuba has already transitioned from being one of Latin America's most industrialized countries to being one of the most sustainable. For decades, Soviet oil imports and trade fueled Cuba's economy. Today, 80 percent of Cuban agriculture is organic and the country is largely self-sufficient.
11. What if a critical mass of people the world over realized the need for urgent action?
People on every continent are mobilizing to address our global crisis. They are not waiting for governments or outside leadership, but are organizing their own community-based solutions, including local food systems; community-controlled, renewable sources of energy; and sustainable modes of manufacturing, trade, and consumption. Women are at the heart of much of this organizing. Working at the crossroads of economy and ecology, they are propelling a transformation of global values and policies on which our future depends.