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6 Things to Feel Hopeful About if You Like Mother Earth (and One Lost Cause)

by Sven Eberlein Dec 10, 2013

If you care about the environment, it’s easy to get frustrated these days. No matter how hard you try to be part of the solution — from personal choices like growing your own food or ditching your car, to signing petitions, becoming involved in community projects, or even rallying for a larger cause — there always seems to be another shocking report, failed treaty, or devastating superstorm to dash your hopes for a sustainable future.

While the problems we face are indeed formidable, and the media misses no opportunity to alert us to the latest calamity, there are also developments that should give us reason to stay optimistic and engaged. Here are six sparkles of hope…plus one lost cause to keep it honest.


With 70% of the world’s population projected to live in cities by 2050 and accounting for the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions, the need for more walkable, transit-oriented urban infrastructure is as urgent as ever. Hosting a “Cities Day” at its COP19 Climate Conference in Warsaw, the United Nations last month, for the first time ever, officially acknowledged the importance of cities in mitigating climate change.

Communities around the world have not been standing by idly. Whether it’s building eco-cities from scratch in Famagusta, Cyprus and Tianjin, China or making existing cities more resilient through the Transition Town movement, people everywhere are already building the sustainable settlements of tomorrow.

Environmental justice

The burden of resource extraction often falls disproportionately onto poor communities with little financial or political influence. Whether it’s polluting oil refineries located in low-income American neighborhoods, or conflict minerals used to make our smartphones wreaking havoc on people and environment in the Congo, less-moneyed communities and countries are usually left to bear the true cost of consumer culture.

However, powerful oil and mining companies are being challenged by indigenous communities around the world. Just recently, an Ecuadorian court upheld a $9 billion judgment against Chevron, a company that has used several hundred lawyers in an attempt to avoid responsibility for leaving toxic waste pits in the Amazon. In Brazil, a massive gold mining project was suspended after a civil lawsuit by indigenous people.

Carbon emissions

With atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide surpassing 400 parts per million for the first time since the Pliocene epoch, optimism has been hard to come by in the struggle to prevent runaway climate change. Even more encouraging, then, that a ray of light is emanating from — of all places — the United States. The country that burns 22% of the world’s oil with 5% of its population reached a 20-year low in carbon emissions last year.

While partially caused by external factors like economic recession and decreased residential heating during winter months (which may ironically be due to climate change), the drop in emissions can also be traced to increased energy efficiency, new fuel efficiency standards, and people choosing to drive less. Siphoning more fuel from the fire, a growing number of cities, universities, and churches have also committed to divest from fossil fuels.

Zero waste

With global municipal solid waste projected to double by 2025 to 2.6 billion tons annually, it’s tempting to bury your head in the trash with despair. And yet, a movement to stop generating waste altogether is on the rise. Led by San Francisco’s groundbreaking urban composting, recycling, and creative reuse program that keeps 80% of all things thrown away from going to landfill, cities around the world have embraced the Zero Waste solution.

In Capannori, Italy, a schoolteacher named Rossano Ercolini used his fight against a planned local incinerator to lead his town to divert over 80% of its waste and open the first European zero waste research center. And a global alliance of waste pickers from Brazil to India to Egypt are gaining new respect and better amenities for their invaluable contributions to garbage reduction and resource recovery.

Cooperative movement

If you’ve ever pondered the root causes of environmental destruction, you’ve probably come across capitalism and its evil step twin, quarterly profits. A burgeoning cooperative movement with close to a billion members worldwide is driving a new, generative economy that meets workers’ needs and considers true ecological costs instead of lining Wall Street bankers’ pockets. The Spanish Mondragón Cooperative Corporation (MCC) is the world’s largest consortium of worker-owned companies, putting workers, not shareholders, first.

The triple bottom line approach in service of people and planet also underlies the benefit corporation, a legal entity whose main purpose isn’t to make money. Since 2010, 19 US states have passed legislation allowing for the creation of benefit corporations, enabling companies like Patagonia to redefine what it means to be a success in business, from competing to be the best in the world to being the best for the world.

Food distribution

With nearly one billion malnourished people in the world but approximately 40 million tons of food wasted each year by US households alone, it’s clear that the world is suffering from a food distribution crisis more than a shortage of food. To bring awareness of this travesty, the Feeding the 5000 campaign has been cooking up events where over 5,000 people are fed a delicious free meal from ingredients that would otherwise have been thrown away.

In Europe, Monsanto stopped pushing for the expansion of its genetically modified crops (GMO) after years of public resistance and farmers refusing to become dependent on patented seeds. The myth of Monsanto’s claim that GMO crops are solving world hunger is coming to light in India, where the failure of the company’s expensive and ineffective seeds drives over 1,000 indebted farmers to suicide each month. In Kenya, a grassroots movement is building food sovereignty through local seed banks and sustainable farming methods.

Language diversity

Okay, I promised one lost cause, so here it is: Of the approximately 6,000 languages currently spoken worldwide, UNESCO projects that half of them will become extinct by the end of the century. While languages have always come and gone, they are currently disappearing at an unprecedented rate due to the powerful dynamics of globalization and neocolonialism, by which speakers of minority and indigenous languages are forced to assimilate to a few dominant languages in order to alleviate social stigma and increase economic opportunities.

When a language is lost, so too is a people’s unique and centuries-old knowledge of Mother Earth.

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