Wanna Be a Change Agent?

December 15, 2002

By Michael Jessen

Wanted: 6 billion humans committed to care in a better way for a planet in the solar system. Must be willing to develop an everyday attachment to the third rock from the sun. Please apply to Mother Earth.

Although such an advertisement hasn't yet appeared, one gets the feeling it won't be long. Planet Earth is in desperate need of change agents. In a week where the Canadian House of Commons voted support for the government's plan to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and New Zealand's Prime Minister signed the climate change protocol on behalf of her country, there was also much sobering food for thought. This is news you may have missed among the advertisements urging us to enjoy a consumptive Christmas as usual.

Temperature data for the first 11 months of 2002 indicate that this year will likely be the second warmest on record, exceeded only by 1998. These data from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies indicate that the temperature for the first 11 months has averaged 14.65 degrees Celsius (58.37 degrees Fahrenheit), down slightly from the record high of 14.69 in 1998, but well above the average temperature of 14 degrees Celsius that prevailed from 1951 to 1980. (See the full story at www.earth-policy.org/Updates/Update20.htm.)

Studying these annual temperature data, one gets the unmistakable feeling that temperature is rising and that the rise is gaining momentum. "A year ago, we noted that the 15 warmest years since recordkeeping began in 1867 had occurred since 1980. Barring a dramatic drop in temperature for December, we can now say that the three warmest years on record have come in the last five years," says Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth, W.W. Norton, 2001.

The effects of temperature changes are being felt most acutely on mountaintops like Kilimanjaro, among the glaciers and in the polar regions.

A record quantity of northern polar ice was lost this year, according to scientists who presented their findings at a conference of the American Geophysical Union held last weekend in San Francisco. Surface melt in Greenland, for example, was the highest in recorded history, and extended to previously unaffected altitudes. In total, there were about 265,000 square miles of melt on the Greenland ice sheet this year, more than double that of 10 years ago. Although the scientists acknowledged that natural variations could account for some of the accelerated melting, they noted that glacial and sea ice melt, disappearing permafrost, the northward creep of vegetation, and increased fresh-water runoff together make "a compelling case that something is going on," according to Larry Hinzman of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. That "something" would be human influences on the atmosphere, including ozone depletion and global warming from greenhouse gas emissions. Changes in sea-ice levels have potentially dramatic implications for the global climate, because, while sea ice reflects 80 percent of solar radiation, melted sea ice -- water -- reflects just 20 percent, creating a positive feedback loop for further warming. (See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2558319.stm for the full story.)

The effects of climate change will also be felt in the areas where we grow our food.

Farmers may now be facing higher temperatures than any generation of farmers since agriculture began 11,000 years ago. Crop yields have fallen as temperatures have climbed in key food-producing countries, such as the United States and India. Many weeks of record or near-record temperatures this past summer in the northern hemisphere, combined with low rainfall, withered crops in many countries, and reduced the 2002 world grain harvest to 1,813 million tons of grain, which was well below the projected consumption of 1,895 million tons.

Crop ecologists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines have recently reported that rice fertilization falls from 100 percent at 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees F) to essentially zero at 40 degrees (104 degrees F). Scientists in the U.S. Department of Agriculture are seeing a similar effect of high temperature on other grains. The scientific rule of thumb is that a 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum reduces grain yields by 10 percent. (See www.earth-policy.org/Updates/Update20.htm.)

Wendell Berry, my personal favourite farmer/philosopher, wrote the following in YES! Magazine (www.yesmagazine.org) and it was reprinted in the November/December issue of Resurgence (www.resurgence.org): "At present, in the face of declining finite sources of fossil fuel energies, we have virtually no energy policy, either for conservation or for the development of safe and clean alternative sources. At present, our energy policy simply is to use all that we have. Moreover, in the face of a growing population needing to be fed, we have virtually no policy for land conservation and no policy of just compensation to the primary producers of food. Our agricultural policy is to use up everything that we have, while depending increasingly on imported food, energy, technology and labour."

These are policies of an economy which David Korten labels the "suicide economy." Korten -- author of When Corporations Rule the World and The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism -- says there is a way out. "The suicide economy is a product of human choices motivated by a love of money. It is within our means to make different choices motivated by a love of life," he writes in a Resurgence article entitled Living Economies. "Each time we choose where we shop, work, and invest, we have the possibility of redirecting our life energy from the suicide economy to the businesses of an emergent living economy." You can find more of Korten's ideas on the People-Centered Development Forum web site www.pcdf.org. If you want to be a change agent in your workplace, a good place to start is www.mallenbaker.net/csr/CSRfiles/ChangeAgent.html.

It is all a matter of getting our priorities right. We live on a planet where the total annual world military expenditure in 2002 is US$946 billion, of which US$400 billion is spent by the United States alone. When we spend so much being prepared for war, why are we surprised and upset when war occurs? Democratic US Congressman Dennis Kucinich believes if you think peace, you create peace. He has already gained the support of 43 fellow Congressmen for his bill proposing the creation of a US Department of Peace.

Dennis Kucinich is my kind of change agent. In his recent "call to action" speech made in the US House of Representatives, he said: "Neither individuals nor nations exist in a vacuum, which is why we have a serious responsibility for each other in this world. Each of us is a citizen of a common planet, bound to a common destiny. So connected are we, that each of us has the power to be the eyes of the world, the voice of the world, the conscience of the world, or the end of the world. And as each one of us chooses, so becomes the world."

I could not have said it any better. May the light of peaceful, environmental concern shine brightly in your future.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at Michael@zerowaste.ca. His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.

All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.