The Great Pivot, by Justine Burt

A book review by Steve Schaefer

The Great PIvot cover

There are many books, videos, and news stories out on global warming and climate change. Some are filled with scary predictions and are good at shocking us into action. But the best kind are the ones that try to paint a picture of ways we can take action to make a difference. The Great Pivot is one of the latter category.

The current carbon-based business model is becoming unsustainable. So, dealing with the huge tasks before us means not only deciding what to do but who’s going to do it. The Green New Deal, which is the subject of the last chapter (and is throughout the book in spirit) says that people want and need meaningful work. So why not get two for one?

That’s what the 30 pivots in The Great Pivot are meant to do. Burt’s carefully developed ideas show how we can scale up efforts to build a sustainable future. This means both creating meaningful jobs for workers and generating more sustainability project opportunities for investors.

Burt begins by addressing the employment situation today. The low official percentages don’t reflect the 37 million people ages 25-64 who are out of the labor force. With outsourcing, automation, and the gig economy, it’s tough out there. Today, the middle class is disrupted by changes in the work place and rising costs, and wages have been stagnant. We can rebuild the economic safety net with new sustainability jobs.

The author proposes five categories for job creation and devotes an entire chapter to each. They all have the goal of stabilizing the climate:

  • Advanced energy communities
  • Low-carbon mobility systems
  • A circular economy
  • Reduced food waste
  • A healthy natural world

Starting with Zero Net Energy, the first few pivots involve electrifying single-family homes and then spreading to multi-unit dwellings and commercial spaces. Existing technology can make all spaces more pleasant and energy efficient.

Twenty-eight percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and Burt spends significant time discussing low carbon mobility. Besides moving to electric cars, we also need to develop clean mass transit, safe bicycling options, walkable communities, mobility-as-a service options, and build out the EV charging infrastructure. All of these are pivots that require people to do them.

The circular economy is a worthy goal to get us to our goal of climate stability. Instead of the current take-make-waste economy, a circular economy reuses and recycles. There are many jobs in waste prevention and building deconstruction (instead of demolition). How about a tool lending library combined with a repair café and maker space to reuse things rather than replace them?

It’s pathetic that 40 percent of food grown and raised in the U.S. is thrown out, for various reasons. Wasted food has a large impact on the climate. Jobs to prevent, recover, or recycle food waste make for excellent pivots. Many of these jobs do not require higher education—just training—so they would be available to many people who need meaningful work and steady pay.

Restoring nature is a valuable and meaningful form of employment that would help the planet recover. Ways of sequestering more carbon in the soil can improve agricultural yields while reducing carbon in the atmosphere. There is good work in restoring forests, waterways, and wildlife. How about creating furniture or other useful items from drought-stressed trees? Then we could leave healthy trees in place to do their job of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.

Besides these actions, we can start looking at the economy differently. We need to disrupt business as usual. For example, we should decouple growth from the traditional measurement of using gross domestic product (GDP). Burt proposes four goals:

  • Shift from fossil fuels to renewables
  • Create a circular flow of materials
  • Dematerialize by shifting to digital products and services
  • Radically reduce waste

It’s fine to get people working, but investors can make a big impact too, by funding the projects we need as part of the overall process of transforming our economy. Burt discusses bootstrapping, crowdfunding, direct public offerings, private equity, and other ways to get investors involved in the right way.

The book ends by discussing meaningful work and relating it to the goals of the Green New Deal, including leaving no person behind. We have many ways to move forward, and the 30 pivots are a great place to start. We need to do it now.

 

The Great Pivot by Justine Burt

MP Publishing, 2019

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Ertharin Cousin – We Need a Food System for Human and Planetary Health

By Steve Schaefer

Ertharin Cousin-image

“The global food system is broken.”

That’s what Ertharin Cousin told the audience at The Foster Art and Wilderness Foundation in Palo Alto on a Thursday evening in late September. The event, sponsored by Acterra, featured this renowned expert, currently the Payne Distinguished Lecturer at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.

Ideally, we should consider the health of the planet and all the people on it, Cousin told us. But we don’t. We are facing two interrelated challenges: How will we feed 9.5 billion people in 2050, and how can we cope with climate change as it throws normal growing cycles and locations into disarray?

Cousin explained that we need to consider the whole picture, including the social, economic, and environmental outputs of food. We have to deal not only with production and human consumption of food but also its disposal. Food is unevenly distributed in the world, and a large proportion of it is wasted.

The World Food Programme, which Cousin ran, distributes food to developing countries, but it is a tremendously complicated, and at times, dangerous occupation.

How is the system broken? According to a recent report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 821 million people are undernourished, without a secure source of food, and 150 million children are chronically malnourished—including 35 percent of the kids under the age of 5 in Sub Saharan Africa. Cousin explained that children that are undernourished during pregnancy or the first two years of life will suffer from stunted growth and development. The report above was jointly published by five organizations, including two from the UN, the World Food Programme, and the World Health Organization.

In North America, there is increasing obesity, which causes its own diseases and problems. Now, in other parts of the world, some populations must deal with both starvation and obesity at the same time.

Food production and climate change affect each other. Agriculture and raising livestock produce global warming emissions, such as methane, and nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer have negative climate effects as well, as well as contaminating sources of safe drinking water. As the global population increases, more land is cleared for cultivation, negatively affecting the climate by removing trees that can sequester CO2. All this means that areas that are marginal can become unusable for growing crops.

Climate change complicates the food crisis by creating more erratic and extreme weather, leading to more droughts and floods. A climate-change-related loss of biodiversity means that plants and animals have a harder time adapting to changing conditions.

Cousin explained that food waste is the third largest greenhouse gas emitter—about 3.3 billion tons of CO2 and methane a year. In the southern hemisphere, a $310 billion loss can be attributed to problems of spoilage and distribution, while in the Northern Hemisphere, $680 billion worth is partly the result of food that is wasted or is rejected because it’s not “perfect.”

Cousin says we need an interdisciplinary approach. “We need to work as individuals, companies, and nations, because issues of global food security and planetary health are too complex for us to simply make incremental changes.”

Cousin proposes that we actively pursue research and innovation, into soil and seeds, for example. We also need to research and develop more efficient water use and better post-harvest practices.

Some developments are helping. For example, there are new ways to reduce cattle and dairy emissions. One experiment placed seaweed in cattle feed and was found to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent.

Beyond the farming aspect, we need changes in consumer behavior, because customer demand affects what farmers grow—they want to make a profit. New research and innovation in alternate foods can develop new proteins that produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Although there are some areas of the world that struggle the most, we need food safety for everyone, no matter where they live, Cousin advises. “We need to take care of the smallholder farmers,” said Cousin. “Eighty percent of the food in Asia and Africa is grown by these farmers.”

“We need collective action by farmers, academics, citizens, and government,” said Cousin. Governments can make policies that affect behavior. For example, you can get a tax deduction for giving food away to food banks, but if you give it to a group that sells food at a lower price you can’t. That has to change.

Cousin pointed out that there are lots of subsidies for sugar and soybeans—much more than for fruit and vegetables. As part of looking at the whole picture, we need to weigh the tradeoffs, since jobs and livelihoods can be negatively affected when we make changes that seem like the right thing for food and the planet, such as reducing beef or dairy production. People in those industries will lose their jobs.

Cousin says, “We need to decide issues on facts, not emotions.” For example, there are negative implications to transporting food, including generating more climate-changing CO2 from the trucks that bring it—but it can help prevent people from starving. What takes priority?

Cousin brought up an idea that might not seem directly related to food—gender equality. That means equal access to training, capital and inputs for women, which can affect the way food is handled in communities around the world.

“We need international trade policy to create mechanisms to respond to climate change and food security issues,” says Cousin. “We need the right research and data to support contextual policies to meet the real needs of the global community.”

The Bottom Line

Food security and climate change are complicated issues, and they are interrelated. We must be willing to take collective action to support the health of people and the planet. It’s an enormous undertaking, but every hungry child needs our attention – no matter where they live.

 

Ertharin Cousin is the former executive director of the World Food Programme and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome, nominated by President Obama. She is on Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women list and was named one of TIME’s 100 Must Influential People.

Acterra’s Mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet.