Working at the heart of the North West based Low Carbon Eco-Innovatory – a university affiliated research and action group – Ariel Edesess and Daniel Blunt underline that the fight to reverse climate change is nearing the final round, yet the contest is far from decided.
It was the 1950s and 60s: World War Two was over and the world was trying to heal. With the end of the war came a global population boom. The rate of growth reached a peak of two per cent per year in the late 1960s (as compared to one per cent per year now). This accelerated increase in population, coupled with limited food resources, was alarming to many, and sparked what is now called the Green Revolution, or the Third Agricultural Revolution.
In this “revolution”, resources (both financial and human) were diverted towards collaborative research and technology initiatives designed to increase food production. The Green Revolution was, for the most part, a resounding success. And, while it is true that an unacceptable amount of people are still without basic nourishment, this is due to unequal distribution of resources and inequality, not the amount of food produced.
We are presently faced with creeping global warming, perhaps the greatest threat to the human race we have ever seen. The oft-used description of global warming is as an “existential crisis”, named so because it could threaten the entire existence of the human race. For most of us, global warming exists mainly as something to be afraid of, to rally up against, to use as an excuse to rage against capitalism, or to deny is happening at all. The success of the Green Revolution in increasing food production (notwithstanding its many flaws) provides us with a blueprint of how to approach another, seemingly, Herculean challenge.
Every day, I work closely with the public and small-to-medium sized businesses in Liverpool city and Lancashire regions to meet the goals laid out in the various local and global emission reduction plans. While the range of feelings about climate action is as broad as the issue itself, the majority of feelings encountered can be roughly summarised by the following: recognising the problem and feeling anxious and motivated to contribute to solution; recognising the problem but believing that, because of their sector or business, they are not part of finding a solution; recognising the problem but struggling to see any financial benefit for making changes; recognising the problem and feeling overwhelmed and incapacitated to help; recognising the problem but feeling that it is hopeless or caused by large corporations, and therefore not their individual responsibility.
While these are wholly understandable reactions to an immeasurably complex problem, they should not dictate how we move to address the challenge. Luckily, this is not the first time humanity has faced a major global crisis and we have some examples to help readjust how we approach and think about this crisis.
With the recent passing of Paul Polak on 10th October, a world-renowned innovator, entrepreneur, anti-poverty warrior and one of my personal heroes, the urgency to highlight his accomplishments and what we can learn from them for the current fight against global warming has increased. Born into a Jewish family in Czechoslovakia in 1933, Polak fled the advancing Nazis with his family when he was six years old. Following a perilous and terrifying journey through Germany, where young Paul even paraded as a member of the Hitler youth to hide his family’s true identify, the family eventually found refuge in Ontario, Canada.
This experience could have left him with a bitterness towards humanity, but instead he chose to direct his innate curiosity to understanding and trying to help others in need. Polak practised psychiatry for two decades before shifting his attention to the problem of global poverty, especially those who were surviving on $1-2 per day.
Animated by his experiences as a child and equipped with his training as a psychiatrist, Polak sought to fill the gaps where the Green Revolution failed to reach those most in need. What made Polak special was where others saw insurmountable obstacles, he simply saw challenges that needed solutions – or, as he said to me once, “People often say I’m an innovator… if innovation is walking along a sidewalk and, on reaching a step, you step up and continue walking, then sure, I’m an innovator.”
Polak understood that the key to changing behaviour and affecting change was to look for solutions most in harmony with the people for whom the solution is intended, to include them in the process, to track progress, and to adjust the approach when needed. His most basic tenet was to treat people who are lower on the socio-economic ladder (in his work, those making $1-2 a day) as customers rather than charity recipients. At the heart of this message is an appreciation of the role of human dignity and feeling of accomplishment in promoting behavioural change.
The climate crisis fight is not the same as the anti-poverty fight or the Green Revolution, but they are all inescapably linked. Mountains of research show over and over again that it will be people lower on the socio-economic ladder who are most impacted by the climate crisis. This is true worldwide, from Kolkata to Merseyside. Here in Liverpool, it might not look like a community decimated by wildfire or a village washed away in a hurricane, but it might look more like fuel poverty, leaking houses due to extreme rainfall and flooding, or rising food costs, and it will be those already struggling to make ends meet who are hit the worst.
The climate crisis monster we find ourselves facing encompasses far more than the environmental realm – its roots are buried in centuries of deep-set behavioural patterns and social paradigms. Years and years of damaging activity, pursued even when we suspected, and then became fully aware of the impacts, have driven us to this crossroad. Tackle the beast and its many faces? Or be blissful in our apathy, ignorance and business as usual?
We all know which is the easy option, and we’ve probably all felt justified in reneging on our personal responsibilities to be better – to use less, reuse more, throw away less, and vocally support difficult or disruptive plans, policies, or technologies. It is exhausting, and anxiety-inducing to be in a constant state of worry about the looming destruction of humanity and it is much easier to ‘opt-out’ and just keep planning your next trip to Tuvalu – yet we all play a big role in challenging the climate crisis.
So, how do we take on this issue as individuals (yes, yes, we are all individuals!) and maximise our impact? Put simply, there is no single answer. There is not one action you could do that would be the ‘right’ way to go – each one of us must choose our own way to contribute. Your contribution is not just certain individual choices you can make, like choosing to go meat and/or dairy-free a couple of times a week, reducing and reusing water whenever possible, or driving less – your most important tool is your voice and how you exercise your expectations of how society should operate.
But, more important than any action we can take today is our resilience and drive to insist on change, to be different and better from how we were before. The fight is not yet lost – the world as we know it today is not set in stone, and “that’s just how it is” is not how it should always be. We should learn from Paul Polak’s philosophies, such as talking to the people who have the problem and listening to what they have to say, focusing on small solutions to big problems, seeing and doing the obvious, and learning from mistakes and adjusting when required.
Polak is an example that each one of us can be an influencer and that each one of us has the capacity to affect major change. When choosing your own path forward to address the crisis, here are four useful points to remember: keep it local, keep it timely, keep it personal, and keep it honest – uncertainty is not your enemy. I’ll leave you here with a reminder from Hannah Arendt: “We are free to change the world and start something new in it.”
By reading this piece, I hope you’ve felt encouraged to take action. This list is by no means comprehensive, but here are some activities to take part in/actions you take:
- Clean ups (CleanupUK, the National Trust and Keep Britain Tidy all have easy routes to involvement).
- Seed bombing (get yourself some seed balls and go wildflower guerrilla gardening – like a rebel Alan Titchmarsh).
- Write letters to local government to insist on reducing public transport prices and build better green infrastructure. I mean, it feels like Liverpool City Centre is actually a deterrent for cyclists right now (believe it not, your letters are actually read and if enough people speak up, they are obliged to take action).
- Change daily habits: reduce water use, turn off lights, don’t charge phone overnight, switch off cars at long traffic lights, reduce and reuse waste (standard but worth remembering).
- Promote holistic solutions – think creatively. Ask questions, find supportive peers.
- Adjust expectations, both of yourself and of the companies you spend money on. Demand drives the market, we can influence the market by changing our consumer behaviours.
- Engage your company or place of work with the Low Carbon Eco-Innovatory at LJMU. We exist to help small-medium businesses in Liverpool, Sefton, Wirral, St Helens, Knowsley and Halton develop low carbon products, processes and services by engaging them with our team of researchers. We work across all sectors and love to be given a challenge! Want to decarbonise your business but don’t know where to start? Give us a shout. Developing the next great piece of green tech and need it testing? You know who to call (Disclaimer: it’s not Ghostbusters).
The Low Carbon Eco-Innovatory is a partnership between Liverpool John Moores University, University of Liverpool and Lancaster University. Find out more about how to get involved with their Clean Growth UK action at @EcoInnovatory.