Sustainability: That Ain’t Country?

Written by Ashford King

In the US, the fight against climate change often looks more like a fight to achieve the public recognition that climate change is real. Flat out denial of science by the dominant strain of conservative politics and the reticence to take bold action on the part of moderates, combined with the self-interested, well-funded and short-sighted survivalist instinct of the fossil fuel industry, continues to hamper sustainable development in our country. We stagnate at home even as we attempt to export models for sustainable development to other parts of the world. 

In our national culture, broadly speaking, we still uphold the rugged cowboy individual as the model for how to exist in the world. Recently, researchers at the University of Virginia pointed out the degree to which Americans’ individualism hindered our collective response to the coronavirus. Lately, science and individualism haven’t seemed able to get along.

A good cultural marker for this is country music. In the US, recent years have given us country songs like “Coal Keeps the Lights On” by Jimmy Rose (championing a phrase that has been used widely in the coal industry’s propaganda campaign) and “Coal Town” by Taylor Ray Holbrook (the music video for which was produced in partnership with the United Mine Workers of America). It is worth noting that these artists are rather marginal country artists, both little known and both hailing from Appalachia, but have taken on specific significance in the debate around the political and cultural value of coal. More widely popular country music artists, at least those that produce popular music that is marketed as “country,” eschew the specifically political in favor of a few main themes: booze, romance, and general patriotism (guns, religion, troops, sports, farming, hunting, the paterfamilias, etc.). The wildly popular band Florida Georgia Line, in their summer 2020 hit “I Love my Country”, exalts the use of styrofoam plates while rattling off a list of American stuff: “Barbecue, steak fries / styrofoam plate date night.” It seems that, regarding sustainability, American country music either takes a hard pro-fossil fuels stance, or nonchalantly implies approval of the status quo. As far as the market is concerned, apathy towards climate change reigns. This is not entirely surprising, given the political climate.

What is surprising is how the analogous genre in Mexico, música regional, compares. Many of the themes heard in contemporary American country music are still present, both the good (importance of family, romantic love), the bad (binge drinking, misogyny) and the more complicated (guns, dogmatic religion). Mexican country music is even starting to incorporate Latin hip-hop and pop into their music, similar to how bands like Florida Georgia Line imitate rap lyricism in their own vocals. This all makes sense; to paint with broad strokes, it’s safe to say that Mexican society and cowboy culture developed in a manner parallel to the development of their American counterparts, and pop musical trends, such as the increasing relevance of hip-hop forms across the boundaries of genre, are increasingly global phenomena. However, Mexican country music, despite its conservatism, finds it within itself to engage with climate change. 

At approximately the same time Florida Georgia Line was working on “I Love my Country”, Edén Muñoz, the lead singer of the Mexican group Calibre50 (“50-Caliber”) was working with fellow artists Alfredo Olivas, la Arrolladora Banda el Limón (“the Irresistible Lemon Band”), Pancho Barraza and C-Kan on a song called “Corazón Verde” (“Green Heart”). The song amounts to an impassioned plea for the listener to become conscious of climate change, understand how it is detrimental to human society, and actually do something about it. Pancho Barraza sings: “Estamos cavando nuestra propia tumba / y no es por asustarlos, viene lo peor” (We are digging our own grave / and not to scare you, but the worst is yet to come”).  He goes on: “Falta de conciencia y no es coincidencia / que todos los días haga más calor” (“[There is] lack of awareness, and it’s no coincidence / that every day it gets a little bit hotter”). Tough solutions are not proposed, just tough rhetoric about what is happening right now. The music video shows the artists planting trees (which is more symbolically important than it is effective as a long-term strategy). Still, it’s a fine start, at least rhetorically. 

Perhaps most importantly, the artists express concern for future generations: “¿Para qué esperarnos? Limpiemos el mundo / y cuidemos la casa. O ya se preguntaron / a tus hijos y a los míos / ¿qué les vamos a dejar?” (“What are we waiting for? Let’s clean up the world and take care of our home. Or have you already asked yourselves what’s going to be left for your children and mine?”). In the words of the singers, recognizing and fighting climate change is an urgent civic duty. The fact that this urgency is absent from cultural representations of American patriotism is baffling. 

I mention this song not to hold up Mexico as an exemplar of environmental or cultural sustainability, or as an example of a society that always leverages science to increase the public good. Certainly, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, Mexico has hardly stood out as successful in its response. What’s more, these artists don’t exactly have a blank check to claim the moral high ground on whatever topic they choose. The same artists that here sing about making cultural and political shifts to fight climate change also sing in a glorifying way about guns, corruption and cheating on their wives and partners. I make this comparison between American and Mexican country music to illustrate that, outside of the US, even politically conservative cultures and ideologies elsewhere pass the very low bar of urgently believing in science. It is a bar that the US needs to pass soon. Coal may “keep the lights on” for now, but it will eventually burn down the house.

Ashford King is a PhD student in Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University. He is also a musician and poet. He is originally from Kentucky.

It’s Past Time for Princeton to Divest from Fossil Fuels

Written by Ryan Warsing of Divest Princeton

If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need to be persuaded that the planet is on fire, and we need to do something to put it out fast.  We see evidence all around us:  California is again in the throes of a record wildfire seasonglaciers the size of Manhattan are sliding into the sea, and in some of the most densely populated parts of the world, massive cities are being swallowed by the tide.  There is little dispute that these disasters stem from our burning of fossil fuels, and that by most any measure, we are failing to prevent the worst.

(Sources: Nik Gaffney / Flickr; Pixabay; Don Becker, USGS / Flickr; CraneStation / Flickr – Creative Commons)

Meanwhile, in balmy Princeton, New Jersey, the university’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI) and Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment have signed splashy agreements with BP and Exxon (respectively) to fund research into renewable fuels, carbon capture and storage, and other climate innovations.  Since 2000, these companies have pumped over $30 million into CMI and the Andlinger Center, with the latter recently extending its Exxon contract for another five years.  

To put it politely, we of Divest Princeton say these partnerships do more harm than good.  True, they may create new and valuable knowledge, but that isn’t really why they exist.  In one leaked exchange from 1998, Exxon representatives strategized about the need to “identify and establish cooperative relationships with all major scientists whose research in the field supports our position,” and to “monitor and serve as an early warning system for scientific development with the potential to impact on the climate science debate, pro and con.”

Taking this statement literally — and why shouldn’t we? — BP and Exxon’s support for Princeton is more than simple altruism.  It’s more than good PR.  Rather, it’s part of a years-long effort not to aid, but to manage climate research toward ends not in conflict with their extractive business model.  Tellingly, these do-gooder oil companies plan to increase production 35% by 2030.  This would be cataclysmic.

Their schemes are made possible by funding and power gifted by Princeton.  We cannot tolerate, let alone enable these activities any longer.  Not when they pose such obvious conflicts with our university’s core values and threaten our fellow students and faculty working around the world.  Princeton must stand up for itself.  How better than by divesting from fossil fuels?

The divestment movement has grown rapidly in recent years, with institutions like Georgetown UniversityBrown, Cornell, and Oxford recently joining its ranks.  Collective actions have taken a toll — Goldman Sachs says that divestment is partly to blame for widespread credit de-ratings in the coal industry, and Shell is on-record saying divestment will present “a material adverse effect on the price of our securities and our ability to access equity capital markets.”  Essentially, divestment works.

We argue that the moral imperative of divestment should be compelling enough on its own; if Princeton moved to divest and the markets didn’t budge an inch, at least then our conscience would be clean.  At least then we could call ourselves “sustainable” with a straight face and live honestly by our motto: “in the nation’s service, and the service of humanity.”  

Detractors maintain that any “demands” on Princeton’s endowment would constrain its ability to earn huge returns, depriving students of the financial support they need to prosper.  This is absurd.  Billion-dollar endowments like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund have demonstrated that divestment can be a net positive.  Fossil fuel stocks have also been declining for years.  It looks increasingly clear that an investor gains little “diversifying” in fossil fuel, and that the risks of divestment have been well overblown.  Shareholders — especially shareholders with a fiduciary responsibility like Princeton’s — should be looking for the exit.

In order to remain within 1.5°C of global warming by mid-century — the threshold at which the IPCC and Princeton’s own Sustainability Action Plan say “catastrophic consequences” will be unavoidable — the fossil fuel industry’s ambitious exploration and development will need to be mothballed.  Undrilled oil fields and unmined coal will become stranded assets, or dead weight on their companies’ books.  To have faith in these investments, Princeton must think stranded assets will actually go to use, in which case, Princeton ignores its own scientists and legitimizes the activities central to our climate crisis.

Video showing a progression of changing global surface temperature anomalies from 1951-2019. The average temperatures over 1951-1980 are the baseline shown in white. Higher than normal temperatures are shown in red and lower than normal temperatures are shown in blue. The final frame represents the 5 year global temperature anomalies from 2015-2019. Scale in degrees Celsius. (Source: Lori Perkins / NASA and NOAA)

Others have argued that regardless of donors’ ulterior motives, divesting would only leave good money and research on the table.  To these people, the “greenwashing” corporations seek from partnering with elite institutions is both inevitable and of little consequence compared to the novel scholarship their funding provides.  The catch here is that quality research and a morally invested endowment are not mutually exclusive.  There isn’t a rule saying our research must be funded by BP or Exxon — if Princeton truly valued this knowledge, it would channel its creative energies toward finding funding elsewhere.

“Elsewhere” could very easily be the university’s own wallet.  Princeton is quick to remind us it holds the biggest per-student endowment in the country.  The endowment today is a bit larger than $26 billion, roughly the size of Iceland’s GDP and larger than GDPs of half the world’s countries.  In the last ten years alone, Princeton’s endowment has more than doubled.  In this light, the money needed to sustain current research is practically a rounding error.  If just a few Trustees put their donations together, they could recoup Exxon’s latest $5 million donation in under five seconds!

We tried to anticipate these doubts in our divestment proposal, which was given to Princeton’s administration last February.  Since then, we have met with Princeton’s Resources Committee and invited experts — former Committee Member Shannon Osaka, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund Stephen Heintz, and Stanford researcher Dr. Ben Franta — to help present our case.  Discussions will continue through the end of 2020, culminating in a forum with 350.org’s Bill McKibben in November.

As a reward for our persistence, the Resources Committee has indicated it might decide on our proposal by Christmas.  If it approves, the proposal goes to the Board of Trustees, and the clock starts over.  This, dear readers, is the “fast track.”

It has been demoralizing to watch Princeton, one of the world’s great centers of higher learning and a temple to empirical evidence, run interference for companies that have scorned the truth, knowingly endangered billions, and literally confessed to their ill intent.  From its byzantine system for proposing divestments to its arbitrary requirement saying divestment must take the form of complete dissociation (a prohibitively high bar), Princeton’s strategy is to frustrate and outlast causes like ours.  Most of the time, it succeeds.

But our cause is different from the others.  With climate change, waiting is simply not an option.  The immovable object will meet an unstoppable force, and the unstoppable force will win.

The longer we delay, the longer we allow fossil fuel companies to weaponize Princeton’s gravitas, spreading disinformation and quack science while purporting to be part of “the solution.”  Until Princeton inevitably divests from these bad actors, we will continue to withhold our donations, continue to protest, and continue to organize, fighting fire with fire.


Divest Princeton is a volunteer movement of Princeton students, alumni, parents, faculty, and staff.  Sign their “No Donations Until Divestment” petition and learn more here.

Inside a Solar Energy Company

Written by Molly Chaney

Finding an internship as a Ph.D. student is hard. Finding one at a company you have legitimate interest in is even harder. In search of a more refined answer to the dreaded question, “so what do you want to do after you get your Ph.D.?” I started looking for opportunities in what is very broadly and vaguely referred to as “industry.” I stepped into Dillon gym on a muggy August day in the only pair of dress pants I own and looked around. Finance, biotech, management consulting, and oil & gas companies filled the room with tables and recruiters.

After talking to what turned out to be a bunch of dead ends that didn’t excite me much, I decided to check out one last table before leaving. A far cry from the multi-table, multi-recruiter teams with tons of free swag to give away like Exxon and Shell, Momentum Solar had a table with some flyers, business cards, and one recruiter. I didn’t wait in line or crowd around like at the others, and immediately got to talking with Peter Clark. What I remember most was his message that they were simply looking for “intellectual horsepower,” something that the CFO would repeat to a group of students who went to their South Plainfield HQ for an information session later that school year. I came away from my conversation not exactly sure what I would be doing if I worked there, but excited about joining a small, quickly growing company founded in sustainability.

At that info session some months later, I was impressed that the CFO, Sung Lee, took the time out of his schedule to speak directly with the group of prospective interns, and gave us all some background about where Momentum has been, and where it’s going:

Momentum Solar is a residential solar power installation company that was founded in New Jersey in 2009 by Cameron Christensen and Arthur Souritzidis. In 2011, they had just four employees. In 2013, six. They were ranked on the Inc. 5000 most successful companies in 2016 (with 250 employees), Inc. 500 fastest growing companies in 2017 (700 employees), and Inc. 5000 most successful again in 2018 (950 employees). They doubled their revenue from 2017-2018, and doubled again 2018-2019. Currently, Momentum has operations in seven states, from California to Connecticut, and shows no signs of slowing down. The solar industry as a whole also shows promising trends: since 2008, solar installations in the US have grown 35-fold, and since 2014, the cost of solar panels has dropped by nearly 50%.

After hearing this pitch, we toured the office, which, while full of diligent employees in front of huge screens, also boasts two ping pong tables and a darts board. The energy in the space was palpable, and Sung’s enthusiasm was contagious: I was sold.

Fast forward a couple months, and I was about to have my first day there. I *still* didn’t know exactly what I would be doing. On day one, my supervisor presented me with a few different projects I could choose from. While I wasn’t using the specific skills related to my research area here at Princeton, I was using crucial skills I developed along the way during my PhD research: programming and exploratory data analysis. I jumped right in to their fast-paced, quick-turnaround style of work, and had check-ins with Sung nearly every day. He made a concerted effort to include me and all the other interns on calls and in meetings, even if it was just to observe. The main project I worked on was writing a program to optimize appointment scheduling and driving routes, with the goals of improving efficiency from both a time and a fossil fuel standpoint: a great example of a sustainability practice helping a company’s bottom line.

People had told me before starting my Ph.D. that, unless I was planning on taking the academic route, the most valuable things I would learn would not be in my dissertation, but skills developed along the way. This rang true during my first professional experience in industry. Problem solving and independence were probably the two most valuable qualities that a graduate student can bring to an internship. Somewhat unexpectedly, teaching skills proved useful as well: it wasn’t enough to prove a point through a certain statistical test; it was crucial that a room full of people with diverse backgrounds understood what a certain figure or result meant.

Momentum continues to grow, regularly setting and breaking records. To date, Momentum has installed 174 MW of residential solar energy, enough capacity to power the equivalent of more than 33,000 average American homes. I know my experience was unique: I was treated as an equal, was mentored thoughtfully and intentionally, and had regular interaction with corporate-level executives. Working there was rewarding, and Momentum’s success is a glimmer of hope during an ever-worsening climate crisis. 

Graduate and undergraduate students who are interested in internship opportunities with Momentum Solar should contact Peter Clark, Director of Talent Acquisition, at pclark@momentumsolar.com.

Sources: energy.gov

Molly Chaney is a fifth year Ph.D. candidate in Civil & Environmental Engineering. Advised by Jim Smith, her research focuses on the use of polarimetric radar to study tropical cyclones and other extreme weather events. Originally from Chicago, she is a die-hard Cubs (and deep dish pizza) fan. In her spare time she enjoys cuddling her dog, playing videogames, and indulging in good food and wine with her friends and family. If you have more questions about her experience at Momentum Solar you can contact her at mchaney@princeton.edu.

Sowing the Seeds of Environmental Justice in Trenton

Written by Laurel Mei-Singh

(Source: Trenton People’s Bookfair)

Magnificent, a hairdresser who lives and works in downtown Trenton, New Jersey, is one of ten adults gathered together in a community space. Meanwhile, an equal number of children paint pots outside, fill them with soil, and plant seeds to grow. On the topic of the lead-contaminated water flowing from the taps of many city homes, Magnificent asks, “What can we do, as a community, to address this issue?” This is Earth Day at the Orchid House: Sowing the Seeds of Sustainability and Justice, planned by the organizing committee of the Trenton People’s Bookfair and the SAGE Circle. We are discussing environmental justice issues in Trenton, a place just fourteen miles from Princeton but worlds apart in terms of access to resources such as clean water.

Environmental justice means that all people have a right to a safe and healthy environment with clean drinking water, fresh food, and life-supporting homes. Its inverse, environmental racism, means that environmental hazards disproportionally shape the landscapes and lives of people of color. A 1987 report, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, and a 2007 report, Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty, confirm that race stands as the most potent indicator of proximity to commercial hazardous waste facilities. Why? Because a long history of racist policies has shaped places in the United States along racial lines, concentrating people of color in areas often near toxic sites while cleaving places into segregated spaces partitioned by highways, train tracks, and walls. The development of industrial facilities in areas populated by people of color shaped US cities in the twentieth century as white people moved to suburbs—a state-subsidized project that ballooned after World War II. Further, the Federal Housing Authority’s A-D ranking system from 1934-1968 used the racial composition of neighborhoods as criteria for insuring private loans, making it nearly impossible for Black people to obtain a mortgage.

Residential “security map” of Trenton, NJ with A-D “area descriptions” from the 1937 records of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. (Source: Mapping Inequality Project, University of Richmond)

Responding to these conditions, community leaders in Warren County, North Carolina merged the environmental and civil rights movements in the late 1970s to address toxic dumping in their predominantly Black community. This became the environmental justice movement, which sought to incorporate environmental problems confronting communities of color into growing mainstream environmental consciousness. Urban centers, such as Trenton, are what Ruth Wilson Gilmore, director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics and professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, describes as “sinks of hazardous materials and destructive practices.” This is largely due to the organized abandonment of “marginal people on marginal lands.”

. . .

Most who live in Trenton know not to drink water straight from the tap. It became obvious after I moved into my Mill Hill home in 2016 that the water tasted oddly metallic and slightly rotten, and we began to buy 5-gallon jugs from the grocery store, the kind that pull your back when you lift them up if you’re relatively small like me. Soon after, news outlets began to report that Trenton’s water supply is contaminated with lead; lead poisoning is dangerous for young children, causing developmental delays and learning challenges, and affects adults too. Even more disturbingly, test results from a 2016 study showed that twenty of the Trenton Public School District’s twenty-six buildings have at least one sink or water fountain emitting water with lead concentrations that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion. At Daylight/Twilight, a high school in downtown Trenton across the street from where we held our Earth Day event, a sink had levels as high as 1,600 parts per billion. Despite this study and media acknowledgement that Trenton Water Works has become a “failure” as a public utility, public officials have failed to communicate with Trentonians about the risks of drinking its water and how to remediate it. A July 31, 2018 letter sent to Trenton residents from Trenton Water Works indicates that contamination stems from lead service line pipes, banned for use since 1960. An added insert acknowledges that, “We violated a drinking water requirement” due to the fact that they failed to replace 7% of the lead service lines within one year of action level exceedance.

This neglect stems from the fact that Trenton is a “forgotten place,” typically regarded by its middle-class neighbors through the skewed lens of racist and dehumanizing tropes, particularly violence and poverty. But how did we get here?

Depiction of Trenton, NJ drawn circa 1882. (Source: Industries of New Jersey by Richard Edwards)

Multiple historical events have shaped Trenton’s environment. For centuries, the Lenape people lived in organized communities along the shores of the Delaware River until the 18th and 19th centuries, when genocidal projects displaced and killed many, while some remain in the region today. In 1679, Quakers led by Mahlon Stacy established a town called Falls of the Delaware and built a gristmill. William Trent purchased this land in 1714 and expanded the mill to become the major source of commerce—made possible by slave labor. In the 1800s, industrialists began to manufacture pottery, iron, and steel. The 1920s brought automation, mergers and consolidations, and attacks on organized labor. In the 1960s, businesses began to close shop in search of cheaper labor, and people with nominal wealth and resources capitalized on the expanding highway system, one cutting through the heart of the city, and moved to suburbs. The aforementioned race-based housing policies enhanced racial segregation, and white flight in Trenton’s environs continues today. While economic development often inoculates the wealthy from the ravages of capitalism, the disenfranchised—whose poverty contours along racial lines—must fight for their very lives. The famous Trenton riots of April 1968 that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King expressed the anger and frustration of the Black community confronting concentrated poverty and unemployment.

Mayor Carmen Armenti talking to Trenton residents after the riots of April 1968. (Source: Times of Trenton file photo)

A few decades later, the NJ Department of Transportation’s construction of the Route 29 extension that began in 1998 destroyed one of the city’s remaining environmental treasures: “a corridor of sycamore trees along the [Delaware] river’s embankment.” This cut off “the community’s once free and easy access to the water’s edge.” This area was once called “South Trenton’s Jersey Shore,” where kids swung from rope swings and frolicked in the water while adults fished upriver. Today, Trenton is full of contradictions. Trentonians rarely cross the highway to reach the Delaware River shore, despite their proximity to the water. The 2008 financial collapse largely thwarted aspirations for redevelopment and wrought a foreclosure crisis exacerbated by skyrocketing taxes. At the same time, Trenton is a vibrant and close-knit place, where “everyone knows your business [and] your neighbors watch your back.” It hosts city treasures like the Trenton Coffee House and Vinyl, Championship Bar, and Classics Books. Its current revitalization can be attributed in part to recent migrants from Central America.

Video of a performance by the band Buy Nothing, featuring Abdul Wiswall, owner of Trenton Coffee House and Roaster, performing a song about Trenton’s lead contaminated drinking water. (Source: Tess Jacobson).

I recount this history to show that, when tackling environmental racism in Trenton, a narrow focus on the intentional decisions of racist individual policymakers cannot possibly address the myriad environmental injustices that the people of Trenton face. Rather, the issue of lead poisoning and the failure of those with political power to address this problem cannot be separated from long and overlapping histories of racism, capitalist restructuring, and careless development plans literally built into the environment. Addressing this issue requires first and foremost an awareness of the many processes that have historically produced the organized abandonment of the city.

This brings us back to Magnificent’s inquiry: What can we do, as a community, to address this issue, or rather, all of these issues? Some of my neighbors believe that only two options exist for Trenton: the current state of disinvestment OR gentrification, the latter of the green variety that entails the planting of trees and the revitalization of waterways for tourists and professionals moving into the city. Yet neither of these options will serve people already living there, those who can barely pay the bills for the lead-contaminated water.

New Jersey-based public health psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove argues that when considering these rooted, metabolic connections of people to places a third way is possible. She calls this “Urban Alchemy.” It calls for holistic redevelopment grounded in community-based planning and collective place-making, a process that requires the coming together of people to fight for the whole. It calls for “unpuzzling fractured spaces” so that people can move freely and reconnect with people and places, for example, heeding calls to remove the Route 29 freeway. While bottom-up strategies such as urban alchemy are needed, strategies such as “social urbanism” involve government investment in infrastructure and services for the poor, including clean water and improved transit. These are the keys to an urban ecology that promotes environmental health and general well-being.

The organizing committee of the Trenton People’s Bookfair has initiated this process by opening up space to collectively envision what environmental justice means. We support not only lead-free water, but also community-based agriculture and arts, mom and pop stores, the retrofitting of abandoned buildings to benefit neighborhoods, sanctuary spaces for migrants, an anti-exploitative economy, and restorative justice and rehabilitation not incarceration. Grassroots, collective learning and visioning can serve as a foundation to make Trenton a healthier place, with clean water and other life-sustaining resources. It can spur informed action grounded in the daily lives and experiences of people living in the city, and in solidarity with people in places like Flint, Michigan.

This work does not aim for a balance between development and sustainability, or, in the case of Trenton, between gentrification and sustainability. This is a false choice. Planning and development must work to recuperate our connections to resources so that we can make thriving places for all, for many generations. The environment isn’t a distant place for recreation. It’s here, in our homes and neighborhoods, wholly embedded in our social and political life. Our environment makes the difference between a healthy life enriched by vibrant community and one cut short by toxic exposure. Consider not only the water we drink but also the food we eat and the systems that bring them onto our plates, the places we mingle with neighbors, the air we breathe and the industries that pollute it, the jobs we work and how our labor interacts with land to produce profit, our modes of transportation, and our systems of waste disposal, to offer a few examples.

Our efforts can take cue from environmental justice activists who have engaged in collective action for decades to envision economic and social alternatives that affirm all forms of life. Most importantly, this work recognizes that our communities and our environments are wholly interconnected, shaping our lives, livelihoods, and life chances, and the urgency of making our cities and neighborhoods life-affirming places for all.

This year’s Trenton People’s Bookfair will focus on environmental justice and will be held on October 6, 2018.

(Source: Trenton People’s Bookfair)

 

Laurel Mei-Singh recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship in American Studies at Princeton University and now serves as an Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawai‘i. She is currently writing a book that develops a genealogy of military fences and grassroots struggles for land and livelihood in Wai‘anae, Hawai‘i. You can reach her at meisingh@hawaii.edu.

The Case for Historic Buildings: Lessons on balancing human development and sustainability

Written by Isabel Morris

We need quality buildings to safely house our schools, hospitals, offices, and our homes. We also live in a world with limited resources for constructing and operating new buildings, which means we need buildings that are sustainable and resilient in addition to being safe and functional.

Most cities facing this challenge are full of underutilized historic buildings and sites with cultural, social, economic, and technological value. These historic places are precisely the solution required in growing cities, and they have surprising economic and environmental benefits.

Newly opened 20 Washington Rd on Princeton University’s campus: adaptive reuse of existing buildings in the Social Sciences neighborhood. (Source: Author)

Since the 1987 Brundtland Commission’s Report, “Our Common Future,” sustainability has been defined as the ability to meet the world’s current needs without compromising our ability to meet them in the future. This sustainable development, in construction and civil engineering, manifests itself in the environments we build and inhabit: cities. Here, perhaps especially, it is important to balance a building’s quality of life improvements with its environmental and social consequences. From “mega tall” skyscrapers, to slums, to the infrastructure that connects them, cities can be catalysts for economic opportunity, industry, and innovative constructions. Historic buildings are a tangible recording of a city’s story and can teach us not only about our history and culture, but also about sustainability.

Some historic buildings: 7th St and Indiana Ave, NW in Washington DC, Rome’s Colosseum, the Roman Via Appia, and Romania’s Sarmizegetusa Regia. (Source: Author)

As catalyzing drivers of development, cities seem to be in direct opposition with historic structures. Cities need buildings that are safe, resilient, efficient, and accessible…but how? What happens to old buildings that stand in the way of new projects? How do we measure and balance the value of historic buildings with the value of progress and modern sustainable building practices? The momentum of development and emerging green technologies drive cities to build for the future. At first glance, run down historic buildings without some modern features (like adequate steel reinforcement or airtight window frames) seem to stand in the way of city and human development, where it is much easier to opt for cheaper, faster, and larger buildings than investing in an existing building.

Why consider historic structures? Historic buildings can be buildings of any style, construction method, period, or function; important historical sites in the US range from the sites of the 1969 Stonewall uprising to 12th century Acoma Pueblo. Most of the world’s historic buildings and sites are protected by legislation and active conservation organizations, which recognize the invaluable artistic, historical, social, and scientific importance of these places. In addition to these less tangible values, heritage structures have a proven record of longevity and resilience in the face of two millennia (or more) of natural and anthropogenic hazards. Historic buildings are fascinating because they function as both sociocultural bulwarks and priceless repositories of technological advancements. Many of the world’s historic sites are “good” buildings that can teach us important lessons about sustainability and building construction.

By “good” buildings, we can mean a variety of things. In the most basic sense, a good building is one that physically serves its purpose (i.e., to physically encompass and support a hospital). From different perspectives, “good” collects more qualifications: the building’s function must be fulfilled attractively, efficiently, reliably, safely, and/or inclusively. Good buildings become even better when they serve their purpose and carry additional features, like full ADA accessibility, cultural significance, or LEED green building credits. Ideally, sustainable buildings and good buildings are the same. In reality, though, issues like short-term (rather than long-term) economic thinking can deepen the divide between “good” functional buildings and holistically good (and sustainable) buildings.

I argue that sustainable development can embrace the lessons and presence of historic buildings with positive environmental, social, and economic implications of historic buildings. In other words, why the best development solution is not destroying and replacing a historic building with a new and perhaps exemplary green building.

The UN’s 11th Sustainable Development Goal deals directly with the challenges facing cities (see also SDG 11 and SD: Cities). In recognizing the combination of exploding of urban populations (according to the Population Reference Bureau, 70% of the world population will be urban by 2050), and the humanistic value of heritage buildings and sites, the goal reads:

Goal 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, including “strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.”

These four hallmarks (inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable) can be used to understand the various arguments in support of conservation and reuse of historic buildings.

There is a large body of work establishing the connections between heritage sites and humanity’s collective memory, or shared identity (see, for instance, a search of “collective memory” in the ICOMOS publications, or on Google Scholar). By definition, collective memory is an inclusive phenomenon. Historical sites are physical witnesses to shared heritage in the history and places that bind us together as humans. Our own stories can be shared and understood through physical places and spaces. Less abstractly, the acts of preservation, from documentation to regular maintenance, necessarily employ and involve entire communities (as in proven asset-based community development initiatives). ICOMOS guidelines exist for a project’s community engagement: for example, the Getty Conservation Institute recently completed a project on the participatory conservation of the Kasbah of Taourirt that relied on developing and utilizing local capacity in repair, technology, and documentation. Since heritage sites are rarely privately owned, we are all stakeholders of these resources and involved in decision making and use of these sites.

Safe

Vacant buildings are unsafe, and in many cities those vacant building are also historic. The correlation between increased crime and number of vacant properties has been established in the US. In fact, by using buildings that already exist within cities and reducing rates of vacancy in a city, historic buildings can both make cities safer and counteract urban sprawl (for example, see this excellent post on Sense and Sustainability). Safe cities, therefore, can be cities that embrace the potential and intrinsic value of their heritage buildings.

Resilient

In an age of urgent demand for resilient cities that can respond to increasing natural and man-made hazards (for example, rising earthquake, flooding, and fire risks in Seattle), we can learn invaluable lessons from heritage buildings that remain standing after 200, 300, 1500, 2000, or even 3200 years. The fact that these buildings have withstood assault on every front and remain stable speaks not only to the ingenuity of ancient builders but also to the resilience of these structures. Some ancient constructions intentionally dissipate earthquake loadings better than some modern buildings: compare the stacked drum columns of seismically active Greece to the monolithic columns of less-seismically active Rome. Because of their inherent resiliency, historic buildings do not necessarily require retrofitting and structural modification; like all buildings, historic buildings depend on regular maintenance for their longevity. Structurally safe and resilient historic buildings, with regular maintenance, can be more sustainable than new construction by eliminating the energy and waste involved in construction, use, and demolition of an entirely new building.

Sustainable

“Historic buildings are inherently sustainable.” So begins the Whole Building Design Guide, a knowledge portal for practitioners published by the National Institute of Building Sciences. The greatest advantage for historical buildings in the service of balancing sustainability and human development is, in fact, their inherent sustainability. These buildings can be adapted to a variety of new uses, whether the project is commercial, residential, or for public use. Not only does adaptive reuse of an existing historic building eliminate construction of a new building, it also eliminates accompanying construction and demolition waste. It is certainly important to consider the holistic energy use of buildings, from extraction, manufacturing, transport, and assembly of the materials in a building; to energy used by a building over its lifetime; to the demolition and disposal of its rubble. Recent life-cycle analysis (LCA) studies by the Preservation Green Lab compare similarly sized and used historic buildings to new construction options, concluding that most historic buildings can be reused with fewer environmental impacts than new “green” construction. Because they were constructed before interior climate control technology was developed, they are often equipped with efficient features instead. These include thick walls with optimal overhangs that trap winter heat during the day and release it at night and whose thermal mass helps the interior stay cool during summer months. Adaptive reuse of these structures can result in creative solutions, like Queen’s Quay and other projects in Toronto, that improve the sustainability and overall experience of a city. In looking at the “total energy” of buildings, in many cases the greenest building is one that is already built; embracing and using heritage buildings can be one of the best ways to make them sustainable.

Sustainable development for urban people and places naturally includes and necessitates preservation of our heritage sites. Furthermore, environmental steps toward sustainability simultaneously preserve both human and environmental health. This has a positive effect on our built heritage, reducing degradation mechanisms and threats to these sites, while improving environmental and social factors affecting our health.

Human development and sustainability, especially in an urban context, are balanced in the conservation and reuse of heritage sites. Residential and commercial buildings are responsible for 40% of the energy and 60% of the electricity used globally. Measures to increase building’s sustainability are in both the interest of human development and sustainable use of the world’s resources. In using a historic building, its lessons and embodied values can be preserved for future generations. The conservation of a city’s heritage sites is the conservation of humanity.


Isabel Morris is a 2nd year Civil Engineering PhD student in the Historic Structures Program. Her research is focused on using non-destructive methods, especially ground penetrating radar, to characterize materials for better conservation efforts around the world.

An Apple a Day: Easier said than done

Written by Prof. Fernanda Márquez-Padilla

A few months ago, I pulled a muscle doing yoga and started going to physical therapy on a weekly basis soon after. I was supposed to do a 5-minute routine every day, and my discipline at doing so was mediocre at best. It wasn’t particularly hard, or painful, but still: it was so much easier to not do it.

At the same time, I was starting a research project on hypertensive patients’ behavior with respect to taking their medications as prescribed by their doctors (known in the medical literature as medication adherence), and had been reading about how people tend to be bad at doing so (with non-adherence considered “a worldwide problem of striking magnitude” by the WHO). “It doesn’t make much sense”, I remember thinking. Proper adherence to heart medication has been found to increase life expectancy, and significantly reduce the probability of negative health outcomes such as heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular hospitalizations. And it’s “just” taking pills. Why don’t patients adhere? Then it hit me. I’m one of them: I’m terrible at adhering.

An important issue for health economics focuses on how to modify patients’ behavior. How can we motivate patients to engage in healthy conducts? Patient behavior has been found to be key for keeping individuals healthy. Improving patients’ medication adherence has great potential to reduce the costs of healthcare—especially for chronic patients who must often take specific medications for extended periods in order to manage their condition. However, modifying individuals’ behavior has been proven to be a challenging task, despite its positive implications for health outcomes and cost reductions.

A recent policy in Mexico undertaken by its largest public health provider, the Mexican Institute for Social Security (IMSS), created an interesting setup that unintentionally incentivized patients to improve their health behaviors—in this case, their medication adherence. The Receta Resurtible policy decreased the frequency with which hypertensive patients (i.e., high blood pressure) needed to see their physician and renew prescriptions, as long as their blood pressure remained stable and they were not late for renewing their prescriptions. In the new regime, patients could see their doctor every 90 days (as opposed to every 30). The policy’s main goal was to increase efficiency by eliminating arguably unnecessary check-ups from relatively stable chronic patients in order to free up clinic space and physicians’ time.

Waiting room at an IMSS Hospital. Source: paginabierta.mx

Now, why would this be an incentive for people to improve their health behavior? The key insight is that while consuming healthcare is a benefit for patients, it can also be time consuming and costly. Therefore, allowing chronic patients—who must be checked-up constantly—to go less often to see their doctor could actually be a type of “reward” that may be used to improve patient behavior. We may think of this as children being incentivized to study harder in order to avoid summer school.

In my research, I find that patients on the 90-day regime improved their medication taking behavior considerably. The number of days that they are out of medication between prescription fillings fell by 2.6 days in response to the policy (from a baseline of around 7.5 days). This is an improvement of 35%, comparable to the effects of other interventions for improving medication adherence, such as educational interventions or sending reminders to patients. My estimates suggest that patients improve their adherence as the total cost of getting their medication, which includes the non-monetary cost of actually renewing a prescription, falls. More interestingly, they further improve their behavior to be allowed to remain on the 90-day regime since they value its convenience. I was able to empirically test this thanks to great data from IMSS administrative records and a unique policy design.

Additionally, I find that patients’ health remained stable in spite of meeting with their physician less frequently. This point is particularly interesting for health policy, where the allocation of scarce medical resources should be done as efficiently as possible. Much debate has revolved around some prominent policies that seek to reallocate inputs for the production of health, such as reducing the frequency of certain procedures (i.e., consider the ongoing debate about the recommended frequency of mammograms) or allowing nurse practitioners to prescribe controlled medications. The value of these policies lies in the extent to which they can reduce the costs of providing healthcare, while not generating additional costs in terms of patients’ health or general wellbeing. In this sense, the Receta Resurtible policy appears to have increased efficiency by reducing how often patients should attend doctor’s appointments without harming their health.

I draw several general lessons on how to affect patients’ behavior from studying IMSS’s change in the frequency of prescription renewals. First, it is important to acknowledge that patients have a hard time adhering, and that sticking to a treatment is generally costly. Second, that in order to design the correct interventions to improve medication adherence, it is important to understand all the costs and benefits that patients face for engaging in any type of health behavior, and that these costs and benefits can be both monetary and non-monetary (such as the time and effort required to renew a prescription). Third, that incentives can come in the form of “getting out of something”—in this case, getting out of 8 check-ups per year. In a way, the policy created an additional benefit for improving medication adherence: the possibility of staying on the 90-day regime. This type of policy instrument may be useful to modify individuals’ behavior in other settings, and its design is particularly interesting as this type of incentive can be cost efficient and welfare improving: in this case, providing less healthcare is not only more efficient but it makes patients behave better as well, while keeping their health stable.

Perhaps next time I’ll be better at following my doctor’s suggested treatment!

 

Fernanda Márquez-Padilla holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Princeton University and is Assistant Professor at CIDE in Mexico City. Her research interests lie in the intersection of health and development economics, and is particularly interested in understanding patient behavior. She has worked as a consultant for the World Bank and RAND Corporation, worked for the Mexican Ministry of Finance, and has conducted research at Banco de México.

 

A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body: Towards universal healthcare

Written By Arvind Ravikumar

The third Sustainable Development Goal (SDG3), as adopted in the 2015 UN General Assembly meeting, strives to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages” by 2030. There are nine targets specified under this goal that can be broadly classified into four categories: (1) decreasing maternal and child mortality, (2) reducing the incidence of diseases, (3) reducing human-caused mortality including substance abuse and road-traffic incidents, and (4) expanding access to affordable health care. Compared to prior efforts, SDG3 provides renewed focus on issues like substance abuse, mental health and affordable health-care for all – issues that affect the developed world as much as the developing world. The SDG3 builds on and expands the health-focused millennium development goals that were adopted in 2000. Indeed, the world community has made significant progress in reducing child mortality, maternal mortality, access to reproductive health, and reducing the incidence of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. However, many of these reductions are far from the targets established in the MDGs – for example, maternal mortality has reduced from 386 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to about 216 in 2015, significant but far short of the target of 70 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. More importantly, progress has been uneven, especially across the poorest and the most disadvantages populations in the world.

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Worldwide maternal mortality rate: Number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births (Source: Wikipedia)

Progress toward any of these goals is only as good as the monitoring mechanisms in place. In this context, the SDGs differ markedly from the last decade’s MDGs because of the development of sustainable development goal indicators – these ‘indicators’ refer to various statistical health data that track progress and keep various countries accountable. A thorough global database on these specific indicators and other metrics is already available. And that highlights one of the major problems in all global development goals – the lack of institutional support and robust data collection from many regions (especially in parts of Oceania, and sub-Saharan Africa) hinders any attempt to track progress. Lessons from other global governing bodies like the World Trade Organization (WTO) could help – one way would be to develop regional expertise within the UN to help developing countries better monitor their efforts.

This goal to improve health outcomes through specific and measurable targets might make the issue seem tractable. However there are important challenges in the years ahead that are exacerbated by globalization and improved mobility. For example, road-accident related fatalities have been increasing in the developing world because of economic development. Record numbers in global mobility will simultaneously increase the risk of spawning epidemics like Ebola or Zika, which would demand a robust and rapid global response to contain its spread. The rapid urbanization in developing countries like China and India will further strain urban infrastructure – without massive investments, urban pockets are in danger of becoming hot beds for water-borne and other communicable diseases. And finally, the recent uptick in global conflicts has resulted in over 60 million people being displaced – a number not last seen since World War II. Any global effort to improve health-care will need to be coordinated with other goals that directly affect health outcomes.

While there are many targeted policies that will directly influence healthcare and wellbeing, it would be naïve to assume that improving global health standards is not dependent on progress across many of the other SDGs. For example, access to clean water and improved sanitation (SDG #6), especially in rapidly developing urban areas in Asia and Africa, can significantly reduce the incidence of many communicable diseases. A growing body of research also show that the physical and social environment (SDG #11) can influence the life expectancy at birth – such stark differences can even be seen in the developed world. Recent experiences in reducing the prevalence of AIDS or improving access to reproductive health-care have shown how unequal progress has been – big gaps exist between the poorest and the richest households, between men and women, and between rural and urban regions. Progress even in regional health outcomes would be strongly tied to success in reducing inequalities (SDG #5, #10) and increasing girls’ educational attainment (SDG #4).

Ultimately, the biggest test for the success of any of these programs comes in the form of investments required – capital to the tune of trillions of dollars will have to be mobilized over the next 15 years, largely through public finance and aid. Recent rounds of talks have ended without any concrete commitments in the part of the developed nations. It is not yet clear if equitable mechanisms to fund massive improvements in infrastructure and health-care initiatives across large parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia will be available.

 


Profile

Arvind graduated with a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University in 2015 and is currently a postdoctoral researcher in Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford University. His professional interests currently lie at the intersection of energy, climate change and policy. Arvind is an Associate Editor at Highwire Earth. Follow him on Twitter @arvindpawan1.

Beyond the Olympics: The role of sports in social development

Written by Julio Herrera Estrada

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.” -Nelson Mandela

One can’t help but grin and gasp when watching those close Olympic races where the winner came from behind in the last few seconds, or those brief moments when gymnasts are in the air before they land (amongst countless other remarkable instances across sports). The Olympics is one of the few events that brings together people from almost every nation around the world, and though the main objective is to compete against each other, one can often see good camaraderie between athletes and fans of different countries.

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Selfie between Lee Eun-Ju from South Korea (right) and Hong Un Jong from North Korea at the Rio Olympics. Picture Credit: Time.

But sports are much more than entertainment and a career path – they can contribute to the integral development of whoever practices it, and they can help unite communities. This is why sports have been recognized by organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the United States Agency for International Development as powerful tools to build peace and contribute to countries’ social development.

Helping One Grow as an Individual

I did Tae-Kwon-Do when I was a kid and then swimming as a teenager. Thanks to these sports I made friends, travelled to new places, and managed to win a few medals to display in my room. However, it was not until I left home to go to college that I fully appreciated all that I was bringing with me thanks to these two sports.

First, I learned discipline: to listen and follow the directions of my coach, to respect my teammates and opponents, and to behave with integrity both when winning and losing. Martial arts also teaches self-control since having the ability to cause serious harm to someone means that you have to be very mindful of when and how you use them (“Fighting not good. But if must fight… win.” – Mr. Miyagi, The Next Karate Kid). I reinforced these skills and values when I started swimming, and I mastered one more: perseverance. As I focused on long-distance swimming, I had to learn to keep going, one stroke at a time, through the pain that you feel after you have been swimming continuously for close to an hour.

Knowing that you are good at something, and even more, that you are getting better at it, helps build your self-esteem. This is arguably easier to do with sports and other physical activities, because the pain and fatigue you are fighting to overcome at each practice, each game, and each competition is very tangible. This self-esteem came very handy as a teenager, when I resisted peer-pressure to smoke, since I would not do anything that would harm my swimming.

I was not an amazing athlete and I was not close to being able to qualify for my college swimming team, but I still carry all these things that I gained from sports, and I recognize that they made me stronger mentally, even more so than physically. My experience is not an exception but a common trend for whoever practices a sport regularly, from amateurs to professionals.

Integrating Communities, Healing Wounds, and Keeping the Youth Safe

The European Union has recognized the power of sports in helping integrate immigrants and asylum seekers, and last June the Council of Europe’s Enlarged Partial Agreement on Sport met in Vienna, Austria to discuss policies to aid the integration of refugees through sports. The International Olympic Committee also contributed by creating the first Refugee Olympic Team. The expected outcome of this decision is summarized best by the words of Yusra Mardini, a swimmer who was forced to flee from Syria and now lives in Germany, and who competed last week in the Olympics: “I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them not because they wanted to run away and be refugees, but because they have dreams in their lives and they had to go.”

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Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image Credit: UNHCR

Popular team sports, including soccer and basketball are being used to help integrate people across communities and countries following conflict – i.e. Sports Diplomacy. For example, the World Bank organized The Great Lakes Peace Cup in 2012 between the countries of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda to help bring their people together after years of wars in the region. Each team was purposefully made up by an equal mix of civilians and former combatants. Events like these bring former opponents together, allowing them to meet and realize that they are not so different from each other, hopefully making future conflicts less likely.

Sports can improve young children’s motor skills and coordination (which are critical for their development), and teenagers’ hygiene and dietary habits. Practicing sports can also help them stay away from danger and bad influences. In Brazil, the land of soccer, a man created an interesting initiative in the favela (i.e. a Brazilian slum) of Chacrinha in Rio de Janeiro that is known for its crime and poverty. He introduced the youth to badminton by building a training center in the middle of the favela with funding help from NGOs and philanthropists. Even better, he mixes Samba dancing into practice to teach the players rhythm and coordination. Projects like this benefit the kids in the community by keeping them away from drugs and gangs, and by helping them develop self-esteem and values such as respect and integrity. It also gives them a chance to dream of one day becoming a gold medalist who comes from a favela.

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Girls from poor neighborhoods in Mumbai, India playing soccer as part of a program organized by OSCAR Foundation, an NGO. Photo Credit: Deutsche Welle.

Sports can bring many benefits to individuals and their communities that can translate to improvements in public health (Sustainable Development Goal, SDG #3), reduced violence (SDG #16), and increased community cohesion. A company even leveraged the popularity of soccer to create a ball that harnesses the energy from kicking it around to later be used as a lamp, helping improve access to electricity in remote communities (SDG #7). Thus, it is essential to invest seriously on projects that introduce the youth to sports and allow them to practice them throughout their life.

Moreover, it is key that such initiatives include both girls and boys so that everybody benefits from their rewards, helping us bridge gender inequality along the way (SDG #5). Often times girls are not allowed or discouraged from practicing sports, but they can be a critical pathway to help girls develop confidence in themselves, and break gender roles and stereotypes. It is vital that this divide is also bridged in professional sports, so that young girls have more role models to whom they can relate better, and who can inspire them to pursue their own goals and dreams.

The closing ceremonies of this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will start the countdown for Tokyo, Japan in 2020. As the athletes return to their countries, many young children will surely be inspired to pursue a sport, though many in the poorest communities of the world will find this challenging. Much needs to be done to increase their access to sports. While the most formidable and entertaining matches and competitions happen in large and fancy stadiums, the most important for countries’ development happen in empty fields and at local swimming pools and gyms.

 

Julio-10 copyJulio Herrera Estrada is a 5th year PhD Candidate in the Environmental Engineering and Water Resources Program, and the Editor-in-Chief of Highwire Earth. His research focuses on the mechanisms and human impacts of droughts, and the policies that can help make our resource management sustainable and resilient. Follow him on Twitter @JulioSustDev.

A World Without Hunger

Written by Matt Grobis

Safe, nutritious, and sufficient food, all year, for all people: the United Nation’s second Sustainable Development Goal aims to transform the world’s agriculture and distribution of food by 2030. With 800 million people suffering from hunger – more than 10% of the world’s population – food and agriculture are key to achieving the entire set of sustainable development goals.

Currently, there exists enough food to supply every person on the planet with a nutritious diet. Yet, large imbalances in access to this food also exist. This is often due to the cycle of poverty: people in poverty cannot afford nutritious food, which weakens them and then limits their ability to earn enough money to escape poverty. The results can be devastating. Poor nutrition is responsible for nearly 45% of deaths in children under 5, as well as causing a quarter of the world’s children to be stunted, or unable to develop normally.

Feeding future generations is similarly troubling. We have dedicated approximately 11% of the world’s land surface to agriculture (1.5 billion hectares), but to feed an expected 9 billion people in 2050, we will have to expand our global food production by 60%. Where will this land come from? We can work to improve crop yield from existing land, but the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) cautions that in many cases, local socioeconomic conditions “will not favor the promotion of the technological changes required to ensure the sustainable intensification of land use.” In other words, we can increase our food yield, but do we have the infrastructure in place to do it sustainably?

These are formidable challenges that require fast, efficient, and long-lasting solutions. By no exaggeration, the wellbeing and lives of billions of people – both present and future – depend on the actions taken to address hunger. The UN has therefore made ending world hunger a priority. “We can no longer look at food, livelihoods and the management of natural resources separately,” the FAO wrote in their 2016 bulletin Food and Agriculture. “A focus on rural development and investment in agriculture – crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture – are powerful tools to end poverty and hunger, and bring about sustainable development.”

A World Without Hunger
Mud stoves in Darfur, Sudan. Promoted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations since the 1990s, these stoves decrease the need for fuelwood, a limited resource that can be dangerous to gather. Photo credit: plancanada.ca

How can we address problems as pervasive as hunger, when those problems are intimately linked with Earth’s other greatest challenges, such as poverty and climate change? For the FAO, the answer is to find solutions that address as many of these challenges simultaneously. In Darfur, Sudan, for example, the FAO is working to introduce fuel-efficient stoves that reduce the need for fuelwood, the principal source of energy that is becoming an increasingly limited natural resource. Women must travel far from home to collect fuelwood, which decreases the time they can invest in childcare, work, or education while also exposing themselves to the risk of physical or sexual violence. Mud stoves, on the other hand, require less fuelwood and produce no smoke. The local production of these stoves generates income for women.

“Tackling hunger and malnutrition is not only about boosting food production, but also to do with increasing incomes, creating resilient food systems and strengthening markets so that people can access safe and nutritious food even if a crisis prevents them from growing enough themselves.”
– Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Food and Agriculture

For Darfur, fuel-efficient stoves not only improve food security, hence addressing the UN’s second sustainable development goal of eradicating hunger. They also help decrease poverty (SDG #1), and they promote health and wellbeing (#3), gender equality (#5), affordable and clean energy (#7), climate action (#13), and protecting life on land (#15). Addressing the world’s largest challenges will require such multifaceted approaches.

 

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Matt Grobis is a 4th-year PhD candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Managing Editor of Highwire Earth. He researches the collective dynamics of fish schools in response to predation risk. Follow him on Twitter @mgrobis.

Empowering Communities and Building Resilience: The United Nations’ strategy to eradicate poverty

Written by Julio Herrera Estrada

The beginning of 2016 marked the start of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were agreed upon by the United Nations last September. These 17 goals, broken into 169 specific targets, are set to last through 2030 and address a wide range of interrelated issues such as poverty alleviation, improved health and education, gender equality, sustainable use of natural resources, and biodiversity conservation. The SDGs replaced the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that lasted from 2000 to 2015. Many of the MDGs were successfully met, but huge gaps still remained on issues including access to drinking water, income inequality, and gender inequality (here’s the final report).

The first goal in both the MDGs and the SDGs focuses on poverty. The initial goal was to help at least half of the people who had less than US$1.25 per day (the definition of extreme poverty) rise above that threshold between 1990 and 2015. This goal was successfully met as the proportion of extreme poverty was cut from 49% to 14% by 2015. SDG #1 now calls for reducing this proportion to zero as well as addressing poor communities above the extreme poverty line. Moreover, this goal raises two key needs:

  1. Empowerment of communities to have the ability to rise from poverty, and
  2. Building communities’ resilience against climate, social, and economic shocks

Seeking countries to take ownership of this SDG and acknowledging that poverty looks differently around the world, it encourages each country to use their own definitions of poverty and to design “nationally appropriate social protection systems.” It suggests countries to ensure that poor communities have access to basic social services, financial services, property rights, sustainable livelihoods, and entrepreneurial opportunities. While there is also a call for increasing mobilization of resources towards poverty alleviation and the creation of a supportive international environment, the United Nations is encouraging development from within.

Empowering Communities and Building Resilience: The United Nations' Strategy to Eradicate Poverty
Source: Pixabay.com

In this context, resilience is the ability of people and communities to reduce their exposure and vulnerabilities to natural hazards such as droughts and floods, or economic or social shocks. This is an important aspect to address, given that a recent report by the World Bank found that climate change related hazards would push back 100 million people below the extreme poverty line by 2030, if development efforts do not take them into account and emphasize building resilience.

The good news is that this framework to combat poverty in the next 15 years is addressing the roots of the problem and is treating it as a multi-faceted issue where advances in gender equality, employment, social services, and infrastructure are also recognized as critical. Nevertheless, the resources needed to achieve this goal will put it in conflict with the SDGs that address the conservation of our climate and the planet’s natural ecosystems. There is little doubt that huge strives in creativity, innovation, and will to change some of our habits will be needed if we are to achieve all 17 SDGs.

 

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Julio Herrera Estrada is a 5th year PhD Candidate in the Environmental Engineering and Water Resources Program, and the Editor-in-Chief of Highwire Earth. His research focuses on the mechanisms and human impacts of droughts, and the policies that can help make our resource management sustainable and resilient. Follow him on Twitter @JulioSustDev.