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Before Botswana, I lived in Pakistan for two years. There wasn’t enough electricity to power the country, even though the bright sun beat down 360 days a year. Without solar infrastructure to take advantage of it, this sunshine only made you sweat harder during the eight to ten hours a day without fans when “load-shedding” would turn off everything in town not powered by generator, plunging shops into darkness and grinding manufacturing to a halt.
My friend Kathrine who has been posted to China twice in her foreign service career regularly posts photos of Guangzhou on days with especially bad air quality. On those days, which seem frequent, outdoor activity is not recommended in the afternoons and people with asthma are advised to keep their quick relief medication handy. The skyline is shrouded in a thick gray haze.
For the developing world, climate change isn’t the future: it is now. Power supply issues, lack of clean water, and pollution crises aren’t theoretical predictions or concerns; they are here today. Many people in the developing world also don’t have access to those things that will insulate most Americans even as the environment gets more hostile, erratic, and potentially polluted from here on out: climate-controlled houses, cheap food staples in massive quantities, air filters, asthma inhalers, government relief agencies, and filtered municipal water piped directly into homes.
It is hard to take urgent action when a problem still seems far away or not certain, when life proceeds generally as usual even with climate scientists screaming for the last three decades that the situation is dire.
So the U.S. has backed out of the Paris Agreement. Maybe this is the wake-up call we needed. Maybe instead of giving up, it’s time to double down, take up individual actions even if they feel like a drop in the bucket and start lobbying hard for corporate actions that can turn that drip into a gush.
We can’t wait for governments, or faceless climate change committees or corporate responsibility departments to take the lead on cleaning up our environment and taking the threat of a warming planet seriously. As of today, it is up to each one of us now, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The best news I’ve seen this week is about the mayors, governors, and other leaders at state and municipal levels who have banded together to fight climate change in a serious way and follow the Paris Agreement anyway. This is the kind of action I was looking for more than a decade ago, when I despaired at the fact that giving college kids canvas tote bags didn’t have any impact on college administrations investing millions of dollars in dirty coal and fossil fuels. When advising kids to “take the bus” or grow some of their own food didn’t mean much when the nation’s army of trucks was transporting agricultural products across the country while belching out tons of carbon dioxide in the process. When you could buy unbleached recycled toilet paper but the construction site next door could toss fifteen tons’ worth of waste and trash without fine or consequence.
Businesses are slowly starting to realize that climate protection is good for them too. Perhaps that is because it is hard to make money in a chaotic world, or because they are scared by the efforts of the world’s emerging powerhouse, China, to make renewable the new trend and they don’t want to be left behind. State and city leaders are right that many environmental decisions are made there instead of at the federal level, and that they can make a huge difference. Whatever the case, it feels today, ironically, like we are all in this together more than ever, and it is wonderful to see.
To celebrate, here are three small things I am committing to do as a result of my decision:
1. Recycle. In America, where city trucks come right to your doorstep to pick up those blue bins, recycling barely qualifies as being environmentally-friendly. But in Botswana, trash that gets picked up (assuming it does), all goes right to the dump. I’ve heard a rumor that it is still possible to recycle plastic, cardboard, and glass by dropping them off somewhere, so I’m going to find out how and make it happen.
2. Stop using plastic water bottles. I know: I really am acting like it’s 2005 here. I’m sure all of you ditched the plastic long ago and are onto sleek stainless steel varieties with artful hemp designs on the side. I was there too for awhile, but then I moved overseas where plastic water bottles still litter every conference room and water coolers are scarce. Nonetheless, it’s time to work harder at this.
3. Scale back on meat. Beef is cheaper than wheat in Botswana and the easiest Tuesday night dinner I know is to throw an entire beef tenderloin on the grill (it only costs $10). But it’s still a bad deal for the environment, not to mention our arteries, so I’m committing to using meat as a condiment when at all, and going meat-free for most dinners. Chickpeas, get ready to be my best friend again.
Shouldn’t I have been doing all these things long ago? Yes, of course, but I had given up. Rock ‘n Renew has been rolling along this entire time, bless ’em, but for me the problem felt too big, too massive, and the world felt too large and unlistening. Now I hope we are finally waking up. I’m sorry I stopped caring, but there is something in the air that tells me it could be different this time, that it has to be. Baby, I’m back! Will you join me?