ECHO's Hill Side Gardening Demonstration Zone

ECHO's Hillside Farming Demonstration Zone

On Tuesday, August 18th, 2009, Worldwatch Senior Researcher, Danielle Nierenberg, and Research Fellow, Molly Theobald took a trip to ECHO Farms in Fort Myers, Florida to see some examples of agricultural innovations and technologies in action. The following post is the third in a four-part series that discusses this trip and some of the things we learned.

ECHO’s Global Farm is divided into six agro-ecological zones—Hillside Farming, Urban Rooftop Gardens, Tropical Monsoon, Rain Forest Clearing, Semi-arid Tropics, and Hot Humid Lowlands—which are maintained by the farm’s eight interns.  Each intern is responsible for one section for the entire one-year internship, allowing for a completely hands on learning experience from planting to harvesting.

ECHO’s philosophy is that a village, a town, or a community is best served by development workers who have both a working knowledge of a particular environment and experience implementing innovations on the ground. During our visit to ECHO we were able to catch up with a couple of interns and get a more in-depth tour of two of the six agro-ecological zones.

We met Terry Lynn as she tramped through the part of ECHO dedicated to learning about how to grow food crops in small plots of land within tropical rainforests. Terry Lynn is near the end of her one year internship. She plans to take what she’s learned at ECHO back home to Saskatchewan where she hopes to work on small farms, expanding her already impressive experience and knowledge before going to work overseas.  As Terry Lynn prepares to graduate from the program she is training David, another intern from Alberta, Canada who grew up on a small farm, growing tomatoes in a greenhouse with his family.

Together, interns Terry Lynn and David introduced us to some creative and practical techniques for getting the most out of an environment that, while providing extremely fertile soil, lacks large areas of sun exposure. In this zone the interns focus on polyculture, combining multiple crops which benefit from growing together.  This system presents an advantage in the rain forest because, while there is plenty of moisture, there is not always enough direct sunlight.

Terry Lynn showed us a trellising system that encourages plants, such as wing beans, that need more sun to grow up, while providing room for plants that can tolerate the shade to grow underneath. Almost every part of a wing bean plant is edible; the pods taste like peas and can be eaten young along with the leaves and even the roots of some varieties. Sharing the trellis with the wing beans was luffa, a vine that produces a cucumber or squash like vegetable that can either be eaten young or allowed to mature to be harvested later and dried, bleached and turned into the luffa sponges we see at bath stores.

David showed us another part of the Rain Forest Clearing designed to replicate the efficient ecosystem of an old growth forest: Leaves fall to the ground, creating mulch and eventually breaking down to provide nutrients to the soil that are reabsorbed by the plants. As a result, the system is completely closed, with no waste. In ECHO’s plot, Glericidia, nitrogen fixing trees that lose their leaves during the dry season (when vegetables need the most sunlight) provide direct light and an excellent source of nitrogen to the crops planted below. David pointed to the Okinawa Spinach cutting that was recently planted at the base of the Glericidia, along with Vanilla Orchid, a shade-loving plant that will climb the trees, leaving room for a vegetable crop at the base to grow as soon as the Glericidia looses its leaves.

Our final ECHO post goes up tomorrow  and will discuss urban agriculture and roof top gardening techniques.

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“The Mondragón Experiment” could be a Robert Ludlum thriller, but it’s actually more interesting than that—at least if you think the current economic crisis creates a teachable moment about what’s wrong with our system and what might work better. 

Mondragón is a town in the Basque region of Spain, and also the home of the Mondragón Corporación Cooperativa (MCC), a corporation with a twist. MCC began in 1943 as a 25-worker factory making cookers and stoves. Today it is a highly diversified corporation (Spain’s seventh largest) with over 100,000 workers, annual sales of US$20 billion, and 65 plants overseas. 

mondragon_corporation

Sounds like any other successful multinational. So what’s the twist? It’s not capitalist.

MCC began as a worker-owned firm, grew as a worker-owned firm, and remains a worker-owned firm. Democratic worker participation is at the root of MCC’s management style. It is a “democratic federation of democratic cooperatives,” in the words of Loyola University Chicago scholar David Schweickart, who writes about “the Mondragón experiment” and what he terms “economic democracy” in the September/October issue of World Watch (see “A New Capitalism—or a New World?”).

 The 2008–09 economic crisis has triggered a lot of talk about the potential for a Green New Deal, and we’ve done our share here at Worldwatch. But one of the striking things about the meltdown—especially in view of the spectacular collapse of markets, the trillions spent on recovery, and the staggering and still mounting human costs—is the lack of discussion of genuine alternatives to capitalism. Maybe most of us believe there really aren’t any, except socialism and Communism—notions that are increasingly anathema, especially in the United States. But economic democracy is neither socialist nor Communist. The government doesn’t own firms, and decisions are made by the people who do: the workers.

 I know, it’s hard to even hear the word “workers” without thinking of the late U.S.S.R., Communism, apparatchiks, and a gloomy cloud of discredited jargon. But economic democracy, in Schweickart’s vision, is radically different. And it’s different in ways that make it both fairer and greener than any other economic system.

Under economic democracy, workers don’t get paid wages, they receive shares of their firm’s profits—a strong motivator for good performance. But such firms generally don’t focus on sheer growth so much, so competition is less intense, thus avoiding the “grow or die” tendency of capitalism. That alone would be kinder to the environment, but there’s another benefit: In economic democracy, investment is also democratized. Investment funds come from redistribution of a tax on each firm’s capital assets, rather than from private investors (“capitalists”). There are no external owners, i.e., shareholders. And because nobody is demanding ever-increasing returns on their investments—and threatening to sell their shares if they don’t get them—the perpetual-expansion impulse of capitalist firms is subverted.

This could all be theoretical pie in the sky—except for Mondragón. Schweickart offers much more detail in his World Watch article and in his books on the topic (e.g., After Capitalism). Maybe it’s time to begin thinking beyond band-aids for the capitalist economy, and consider a system better suited to our times. It’s kind of exciting—even a bit thrilling.

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ECHO Farm Seed Bank Manager, Lindsay Watkins

ECHO Farm Seed Bank Manager, Lindsay Watkins

On Tuesday, August 18th, 2009, Worldwatch Senior Researcher Danielle Nierenberg and Research Fellow Molly Theobald took a trip to ECHO Farms in Fort. Myers, Florida to see some examples of agricultural innovations and technologies in action. The following post is the second in a four-part series that discusses this trip and some of the things we learned.

The organization and farm we visited last week, ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization), was started in the 1970s with a focus on helping Haiti’s poor. Since then, ECHO has evolved into an important resource and training center for Methodist missionaries, development organizations, Peace Corps, and farmers from all over the world who want to learn about low-cost, environmentally sustainable agricultural techniques.

ECHO Farm's System of Rice Intensification (SRI) Demonstration

ECHO Farm's System of Rice Intensification (SRI) Demonstration

Hands on experience combined with on–the-ground testing is an integral part of ECHO’s philosophy. Stan, ECHO’s Executive Director, explained that it is important to him that not only students and interns trained at ECHO take away agricultural skills based on actual experience, but that the methods and technologies that ECHO promotes are also well-tested and dependable. “We want to present ideas that really work,” he explained. “We are very careful about making certain that we don’t promote anything that hasn’t been tried and tested.” Stan went on to explain that while there is always some experimentation on the ground in order to better fit a tool or method into the specific needs of a community or individual, he never wants someone in the field to be worried about whether or not a technology will work.

One way ECHO ensures its innovations continue to evolve to better fit the needs on the ground around the world is by encouraging constant feedback from development volunteers and farmers who use the organization’s services every day. This is probably best illustrated by ECHO’s extensive seed bank and seed donation program.

We met Lindsay Watkins, who manages ECHO’s small seed bank, while she was toting her baby back to her house on campus. Most staff both live and work at ECHO.

Not only does Lindsay help maintain a collection of all the tropical plants and trees grown on the farm, but she also manages ECHO’s seed donation program. ECHO gives seeds to groups and farmers who request them for free, with the hope that growers will plant those seeds, collect and save them from the crops they grow, and share them with their community. But just as important as the seeds Lindsay sends out is the feedback she gets in return from those that receive them.

Lindsay makes sure to provide growers with a questionnaire that asks about climate conditions and harvest results, among many other relevant details. While it can sometimes be difficult to get responses from growers given conditions in the field, the information that Lindsay does receive helps her determine in the future where to send different seed varieties and which crops farmers find most useful. By taking this constant feedback from the ground into consideration, ECHO can continue to fine tune their extensive collection of sustainable and productive solutions for other growers around the world.

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Some weeks ago, my former Worldwatch colleague Zoë Chafe—now a PhD student with the Energy and Resources Group of the University of California at Berkeley—queried me whether I was aware of any major occupational health and safety issues in the renewable energy industry.

What quickly came to mind was a March 2008 newspaper story about polysilicon, a material critical to the solar photovoltaics (PV) industry. The article reported that a number of Chinese companies were cutting corners in the rush to fill booming demand and keep costs low. Instead of recycling a highly toxic byproduct, silicon tetrachloride, the companies were stockpiling the substance in drums or simply dumping it, rendering land infertile and exposing both workers and surrounding citizens to dangerous concentrations of chlorine and hydrochloric acid.

Raw silicon. Image courtesy of Le Piment.

Raw silicon. Image courtesy of Le Piment.

It may be tempting to regard this as just another case of China’s “Wild East” development model. The truth is that the solar PV industry, regardless of location, uses “extremely toxic materials or materials with unknown health and environmental risks,” in the words of a January 2009 Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition report. The study speaks of a “limited window of opportunity to ensure that this extremely important industry is truly ‘clean and green,’ from its supply chains through product manufacturing, use, and end-of-life disposal.”

But it’s also important to assess the situation in a comparative manner. How does the renewable energy industry compare with the one it seeks to replace—the fossil fuels industry? Zoë kindly sent me an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that examines this question. The piece notes that there are some limits concerning available data and studies, and more comprehensive assessments will be needed in the future.

Nonetheless, the authors conclude that occupational hazards in the fossil fuel sector—with regard to mining and power plant operations—are substantially higher than those associated with wind and solar energy. This is true not just in absolute terms (the fossil sector is presently still so much bigger), but also with regard to the relative risks (i.e., per unit of output.)

The perhaps most rigorous comparative assessment to date, undertaken by the European Union, confirmed this judgment. In the U.S. context, the JAMA authors find that “the potential occupational health benefits of transitioning to renewable energies are considerable.”

The wind and solar industries hold tremendous potential to halt humanity’s race to the climate precipice. Their appeal will be even stronger if they are developed in such a way as to respect not only environmental limits, but also to protect those who often find themselves on the frontline of exposure—the world’s workers.

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Beth Doerr, ECHO Intern Manager and Agricultural Consultant

Beth Doerr, ECHO Intern Manager and Agricultural Consultant

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009, Worldwatch Senior Researcher, Danielle Nierenberg, and Research Fellow, Molly Theobald took a trip to ECHO Farms in Ft. Myers Florida to see some examples of agricultural innovations and technologies in action. The following post is the first in a four-part series that discusses this trip and some of the things we learned.

See below for video of Beth Doerr discussing the importance of easy to make and use technologies and stay tuned for more in-depth exploration of specific examples of sustainable technologies at ECHO. We’ll also spend some time getting to know the young interns who help make ECHO’s knowledge global after graduating from the year long training program.

When we first poked our heads into Beth Doerr’s office at ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization) last Tuesday morning, we had no idea that the quiet woman with the friendly smile was such a powerhouse of innovations at this Ft. Myers, Florida-based demonstration farm. We knew she was the Intern Manager and the wife of Stan Doerr, the larger-than-life Executive Director of ECHO, but later in the day, we also learned that Beth is at the forefront of collecting low-tech, low-cost ways for farmers in the developing world to grow food better. Listening to Beth describe her experiences living, learning and teaching abroad, we definitely learned that appearances can be deceiving.

Standing in her “workshop” of appropriate technologies, surrounded by efficient and resourceful tools used to clean water, cook meals, and prevent indoor air pollution, Beth talked about the importance of listening to the needs of a specific group of people and having a “collection” of dependable and tested answers, technologies and procedures as a resource. During a year long internship with ECHO a few decades ago, Beth learned about the “rope and washer pump”—a low tech, easy to repair pumping system using locally available technology that originated in Zimbabwe. Beth used what she learned at ECHO while working in a community in Malawi. Beth was surprised, she said, not only about how excited people were about this innovation, but that they had never heard about it or seen it, although it was literally being used in the country right next door.

Today, Beth has used her some 30 years of experience to amass a collection of light weight water pumps, indoor pollution reducing cook stoves, and oil presses that are easy to make, use, and maintain in villages and urban areas all over the world. Available on the farm for testing, comparison and modification, these tools represent the exchange of information that ECHO is all about. “This isn’t about reinventing the wheel,” explains Beth. “This is about finding out what works and making it available to others who could benefit from it.” And it’s also about making sure these options are sustainable. All of the tools in Beth’s collection can be made, replicated, or fixed with basic materials and without too much training, ensuring a long term solution to basic needs in the places in most need.

As Beth lead us around the area dedicated to her collection of innovations, Stan stood by, contributing additional anecdotes and insights into the philosophy behind ECHO’s approach to assembling and disseminating a wealth of information and knowledge.

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For decades, ocean currents between Japan and the United States have been carrying flows of garbage back and forth, accumulating in a region known as the Pacific Gyre, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This floating garbage of nonbiodegradable plastic is now a potential goldmine for international recyclers, who are now part of an exploratory project to study the discarded plastic and its potential. They are joined by scientific researchers who will look at the effects of the decomposing plastic on marine life.

This is good news – greater attention is now focused on the garbage, and research is underway to study its impact on ocean life. More importantly, attention is focusing on the long ignored but dirty truth about our daily consumption habits: Human-produced waste has successfully accumulated to the point where it is now known to outweigh the mass of plankton 6:1 in some ocean waters, according to previous research.

Now that the recycling industry has entered the picture, there is hope that recycling will be an integral part of the solution by accelerating the clean up and using garbage productively. Also, the industry could be an economic boon during recession times, while making advances in the sector to make recycling a more efficient process.

Cleaning it up is an important step. But in the long term, recycling is not the end-all solution to waste. Recycling also incurs its own waste within the production process, and such a system wouldn’t necessarily discourage consumers from changing their current product consumption and garbage producing practices. Consumer cultural behavior, which is still largely ‘consume-and-throw-away,’ has yet to be addressed in a meaningful way.

But campaigns such as “Take Back the Tap” are examples of efforts to engage consumers to rethink the value of what they consume, particularly with regard to the waste of resources consumed and the waste products created. Perhaps a zero garbage campaign or a garbage recycling contest would help bring a new level of consciousness and engagement among consumers.

The long term implications of accumulating, nonbiodegradable waste must be central to the issue. The garbage, which has already become so profuse, is being mistaken as food and already has been found in the bodies of fish, birds and other marine life. Having entered the food chain, plastic, a persistent organic pollutant, is likely to impact our health on an increasing scale.

The quality of our waters is in decline and its ecosystems are being negatively affected due in part to our unconscious consumption practices. The sustainable clean-up solution to this garbage patch goes beyond removing the end product. It requires a shift away from consumer cultures that would in turn prevent waste creation in the first place.

For more information on protecting marine ecosystems, see Worldwatch’s Oceans in Peril: Protecting Marine Biodiverity here.

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Sometimes it’s what’s left out of a news story that makes the reporting disappointing, because omissions may leave readers lacking critical information. I was reminded of this in a recent piece in the New York Times, which reported that after three decades of rising income inequality in the United States, the richest Americans “have gotten poorer” in this recession. Whereas the top 1 percent of earners took home 9 percent of income in the late 1970s–and 23.5 percent in 2007–their share may now be falling, according to economists cited in the story.

The article seemed to worry that the demise of the super wealthy could be a problem for the U.S. because it portends fewer charitable donations and lower revenues to federal and state governments. And these adverse impacts could be greater than in earlier economic downturns, because the wealthy in 2007 were so much richer, relative to the rest of the population, than in the past. So much of this article on inequality examined whether the super-rich would regain their pre-2008 status anytime soon.

But this reporting begs a fundamental question: should the wealthiest re-establish their previous levels of privilege? Beyond the question of basic fairness, are there reasons to favor greater equality in society over greater inequality?

Apparently so. A new book entitled The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, argues that a host of benefits accrue to societies that make greater equality a policy priority. According to a Manchester Guardian review of the book, in societies that favor growth over lessened inequality, many people have shorter and unhappier lives. Rates of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment, and addiction all rise in societies of inequality. In addition, greater inequality is a driver of consumption, which often has adverse environmental effects. (I look forward to reading this work. If you already have, what do you think of this argument?)

The benefits of a less-skewed society, entirely ignored by the Times article, are indispensable to a full discussion of inequality. This discussion is long overdue in the United States, but it may be coming. The article notes that tax rates for the richest in the United States under the Obama administration could rise from 36 percent to 39 percent, likely nudging the country toward greater equality. (Note, however, that in the three decades following World War II, according to the Times, the top marginal tax rate ranged from 70 to 91 percent–a large part of the reason why U.S. society was more equal then.) Much debate will undoubtedly ensue over this. Let the debate begin–but let it include the full range of issues, including the societal benefits of greater equality.

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Senior Researcher, Brian Halweil, appeared on NPR’s Science Friday, ”Sizing Up Sustainable Food ,”  last week with Michael Polland and James Mc Williams

On a recent episode of Science Friday, when the host asked whether organic farming could feed the world, one of the guests suggested that the impracticality lay with compost.

“The concerns with fertilizer really have to do with compost,” said journalist James McWilliams. “Compost is extremely heavy. And this is, in some ways, going to be tremendously unwieldy and unachievable, especially in poor countries.”

Yes, it’s true that compost is best made and used locally. But compost isn’t the only form of fertilizer used by organic farmers. In addition to bulky sources like compost and manure, there are cover crops, green manures, and leguminous plants added to the crop rotation, some of which are more accessible and affordable for poor farmers than chemical fertilizers. And if weight is your main concern, organic farmers also have an array of concentrated fertilizers to choose from, from bone and fish meal to chicken litter teas and microbial soil inoculants. A Michigan State team of agricultural scientists and ecologists found that there was, in fact, no shortage of “organic” sources of nitrogen if the world needed to depend on these for fertility. (I took a look at this study and others a few years ago.)

At a time when the number of hungry people on the planet has just topped one billion, this guest’s anti-compost statement was good evidence that journalists, agricultural scientists, politicians, and even farmers often dismiss agricultural approaches based on misinformation. This is part of the reason that Worldwatch has launched a project to evaluate and point the world towards agricultural innovations that can nourish people, as well as the planet.

Which isn’t to say that an all-organic approach is necessarily the solution. Or that an all-anything approach is the best solution. In fact, if there were any broad conclusions from the Science Friday discussion it was that the world’s agricultural discussion is moving away from extremism and towards nuance. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where soils are so depleted in nutrients, organic forms of fertilizer are most effective at raising yields only after farmers use some chemical fertilizer to build back essential nutrients. In other situations, where poor farmers are exporting vegetables or coffee or cashews to wealthy nations, the greatest benefits will come from combining these long-distance markets with investment in local processing and local marketing cooperatives that add as much value as possible before the crops leave the country.

Past attempts to eradicate hunger, in addition to common sense, show us that no one answer will save the world—or millions of people from hunger and malnutrition. The most enduring solutions will suit the setting—a pest-resistant crop variety will be indispensible in some cases, whereas in other regions farmers will benefit most from access to low-cost irrigation. A diversity of solutions will be the strongest solution, just as the world’s wealth of crop and livestock diversity is our ultimate insurance against the emergence of new diseases or more erratic weather from climate change.

As the show wound down, I found myself channeling some commonsense wisdom from my grandfather: “We shouldn’t let doing the perfect prevent us from doing the good.” I suppose this is as true for our own lives as it is for agricultural development.

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The U.S. “cash-for-clunkers” program—formally known as the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) Program—has apparently been successful far beyond what Washington policy-makers expected.  The $1 billion set aside for the program ran out in a matter of days, leading Congress to vote an additional $2 billion for it. Government data indicate that the average rating for the new car purchases that were stimulated by the program was 25.4 miles per gallon, compared with an average of just 15.8 mpg for the surrendered clunkers.

For a nation that for many years defiantly purchased clunkers … err, SUVs, in the face of worrisome resource and environmental trends, that’s not a mean feat to accomplish.  Still, the 7 million tons of carbon emissions avoided over the next decade by trading in a quarter million gas guzzlers are equal to just 0.04 percent of total U.S. emissions of 16 billion tons from gasoline-powered vehicles over the same period of time.

The United States will have to keep working hard to reduce the environmental footprint of its transportation system, catching up to Europe, Japan, and even China in fuel economy.

France, which already has far more efficient vehicles than the United States, in December 2007 adopted an “ecological bonus-malus” program [PDF; in French] for new car purchases to further reduce the carbon footprint of cars. The program offers a bonus of €200–1,000 ($275–1,380) for vehicles emitting a maximum of 130 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilometer, and €5,000 for those emitting no more than 60 grams. (More efficient cars emit less CO2).

But the program also brings in revenue, and provides an incentive not to purchase less efficient cars. Vehicles emitting more than 160 grams of CO2 are subject to a charge of €200–2,600 ($275–3,580). As a result, the share of newly registered vehicles that emit less than 130 grams per kilometer rose from 31 percent to 44 percent in a single year.

The French experience offers some good lessons for the United States.  Automobile manufacturers would have far greater incentive to meet and surpass corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards if car buyers could be persuaded to consistently seek out the most efficient models.  As under the French approach, buying a gas guzzler would attract a hefty fee, while purchasing a top-performing vehicle would be supported either with cash incentives or tax benefits.

Further, instead of only imposing average fuel economy requirements, the government should consider outlawing sales of any vehicle that does not meet a minimal mileage requirement. This floor could then be raised with each passing year.

There is no shortage of effective measures to reduce the climate footprint of vehicles.  Ultimately, however, it’s even more important to work on reducing the heavy reliance on cars and to promote public transit, rail, and walkable communities.

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She’s called “The Radical.” And perhaps in comparison with the other interviewees of the film, she may appear so. The Radical (Stephanie Mills) is just one of several voices contributing her story to the upcoming documentary, Earth Days, a film that recounts the history of the environmental movement from the post World War II development expansion through the social unrest of the 1960s to the organized lobbying force it is today. Along with the Politician, the Conservationist and several other interviewees of the film, The Radical, has committed to the environmental movement in her own way. But her contribution became her personal life mission: a class valedictorian who gave a speech on human overpopulation and vowed then to never have children, she now lives a sustainable lifestyle in rural Michigan—child-free. This is one powerful example of how a movement can have a transformative change on one individual, and through her, many others.

The modern U.S. environmental movement was spurred forth by Rachel Caron’s Silent Spring, photos of Earth from space, and other moments of rising ecological consciousness. This movement–social, political, and cultural in nature—led to teach-ins on college campuses and marches in cities, and even a countercultural exodus where consumerism was abandoned for resource-minimal back-to-the-land living. But as Earth Days describes, teach-ins meant to inform also rallied people around an increasingly political cause and Congressional representatives with bad track records on environmental issues were singled out and eventually voted out of office. Within the 1970s, the movement had become a political force, streamlined and organized.

Over time, however, the environmental movement has increasingly become just one among many special interests that is competing for the attention of the people. Yet in this frame of “environmentalism as a special interest,” the urgency of the situation is lost. While healthcare is receiving greater public interest than the climate change bill in Congress, if agricultural lands dry out, if entire cities have to be abandoned because of flooding, if storms and heatwaves become more frequent, and new tropical diseases spread northward, then providing affordable healthcare to all will be the last of our concerns. Simply quelling social unrest and resettling environmental refugees will become the preoccupation of the government.

As the documentary shows, the U.S. environmental movement lost its power in the boom times of Reagan and Clinton. But climate change demands that a new movement blossom. Simply changing lightbulbs, buying green consumer products, and trading in one’s “clunker” will not succeed in stabilizing the Earth’s climate. Instead the reinvigoration of the environmental movement will be necessary—not just in the political sphere, but in the cultural sphere as well. Right now, there are cultural norms on how we live that make Stephanie Mills’ declaration just as taboo today. But to stabilize the climate, actions such as vows to have fewer children, to live with no impact, and to devote oneself to passing truly effective climate legislation, will all be necessary. Environmentalism as a movement will have to rise up again.

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