28 September 2005

And the Poor Shall be Rich...

In a meeting I attended last week in Monterey, California, much of the talk centered on ecosystems services and how to account for them, how to factor them into the mix for conservation action, and their impact on the poor.

How curious to note, then, that only the week before, on the floor of the UN, the environment minister of Costa Rica was making similar comments and selling the concept to a group there gathered.

Maybe there is something in the air.

The concept of ecosystem services -- the life-sustaining properties and protection provided by nature -- has been kicking around for more than a decade. Only now, it seems to be getting some traction.

Countries like Costa Rica have unparalleled natural riches; this is undeniable. That we should economically quantify the contribution of such natural services as clean water from watersheds, flood and storm control from coastal wetlands and barrier islands, greenhouse gas reductions from forests and grasslands is not a new idea. But there is a new twist.

Where ecosystems services are concerned, it turns out the poorest are richest.

As The Economist (17 Sept 2005) says, "When natural accounts are expanded to include not only 'produced' wealth (goods and services), but also intangibles (such as knowledge) and especially natural wealth, they reveal some interesting patterns."

Now the World Bank and others, such as Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, that environment minister from Costa Rica, are calling for a new accounting to measure a country's economic welfare, a sort of "Green GDP," in the words of some.

It's been tried before, most notably in the macro-scale by Robert Constanza and other authors of a controversial Nature article a few years ago, but never (to my knowledge) on a country by country basis.

"If all environment ministers abandon tree-hugging in favor of such talk of profit and loss," The Economist notes, "Mr. Rodriguez's dreams may yet come true." That may be a long time coming, maybe too long to outrun the herd.

And there are still many a naysayer in the environmental community who would eschew any such valuing nature. They believe nature has "intrinsic value" and argue we should be altruistic in our efforts and our goals.

Wiser minds than mine have pointed out that "profit trumps altruism" every time. Maybe it's time to cede the bean counters the floor, and give profit a chance. Then the meek shall inherit the true wealth of nations.

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04 September 2005

A Ripple of Hope: Safe Drinking Water

One of the UN Millennium Development Goals is to "reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water" by the year 2015. Currently, more than one billion people do not have access to safe water and about half of the world's poor suffer from waterborne diseases. Over 6,000, mainly children, die each day by consuming unsafe drinking water.

Now a company called Vestergaard Frandsen, with branch offices in many developing countries, is pioneering a new product called the LifeStraw, which aims reduce the impact of waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera, dysentery, and diarrhea. The company specializes in disease control textiles and is the creator of the PermaNet, an insecticidal polyester mosquito bed net, and the ZeroFly shelter, an insecticidal plastic sheet that provides both shelter and malaria prevention for extreme emergency situations.

The LifeStraw turns surface water into drinking water as the drinker sucks in water from wherever she may be. Its simplicity is matched only by its effectiveness. It has a lifespan of 700 liters or about one year of water consumption for one person. The cost? The small plastic pipe filter runs around two bucks.

An article in MedGadget, "the internet journal of emerging medical technologies," describes the LifeStraw this way:
"What first meets the water when sucked up is a pre-filter of PE filter textile with a mesh opening of 100 micron, shortly followed by a second textile filter in polyester with a mesh opening of 15 micron. In this way all big articles are filtered out, even clusters of bacteria are removed. Then the water is led into a chamber of iodine impregnated beads, where bacteria, viruses and parasites are killed. The second chamber is a void space, where the iodine being washed off the beads can maintain their killing effect. The last chamber consists of granulated active carbon, which role is to take the main part of the bad smell of iodine, and to take the parasites that have not been taken by the pre-filter or killed by the iodine. The biggest parasites will be taken by the pre-filter, the weakest will be killed by the iodine, and the medium range parasites will be picked up by the active carbon. The main interest to everyone is the killing of bacteria, and here our laboratory reading tells us that we have a log. 7 to log 8 kill of most bacteria. This is better than tap water in many developed countries."

And the LifeStraw does all this for about the cost of a small bottle of "spring water" at your local airport newsstand!

More information: INDEX: The World Arena for Future Design and Innovation

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03 September 2005

Story Telling as a Conservation Strategy

In the conservation community, when we talk about our work, we talk mostly about bucks and acres. We focus on how much land we protected, the species saved or how much money it took to do the deal.

What we leave behind is the back-story, which has more to do with the human communities affected by our work -- the families and individuals with ties to the lands and waters and the natural, life-sustaining services that provide their livelihood. There is always a story behind the scenes -- beyond the deal -- that is more compelling.

Several years ago, I learned about the work of Peter Forbes, who was spending a year or more as a fellow with his group, the Trust for Public Land. He spent much of that time examining their deals, looking for, and telling the back-stories. He gathered the stories, developing a method for ferreting them out of the muck. The result was The Story Handbook. I talked to Peter about his work several years ago at the annual Land Trust Alliance Rally and found an ally, someone whose thinking on the subject dwarfs mine.

My discipline in the conservation arena is fundraising; I've spent the last 14 years raising money from some wonderful people to protect places we care about together. I wanted to find a practical application for this thinking and a venue to test my assumptions. I'd been leading fundraising workshops for the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association over the years and approached them about an idea for a new workshop.

I called it "Telling Our Story: Connecting Place & People to Inspire Transformational Giving." I lead participants through an exercise in uncovering the back-story and bring it to the foreground. Really, it was about changing the nature of our conversations about conservation. I wanted the conversation to be more about the needs we fulfill, not about needs we have, and about what we can solve and what we can only serve. The idea was to focus on people, their values, and the impact we were having on issues and on people.

The participants had ten minutes to create their story, then pair off and tell it to a partner. Bringing them back together, I shared Forbes's "Story Sheets" concept from the Handbook, pulling out six essential points for a different kind of story telling:

Describe the place from personal experience
State the context for the conservation project
Broader historical context
Larger Social Good Being Addressed
Relationships Strengthened and Preserved
Convey Emotion and Core Values

The group then had to redraft their story along these lines, retell the story to their partner and then talk about what changed in their story, whether it was more compelling told in this way. The results were great; people told better stories in this new context. Moreover, their stories were less jargon-riddled and numbers oriented. They told real stories to which others could relate.

I went back to a couple of people in the organization I work for, The Nature Conservancy, and shared this idea. They latched onto it and took it further than I could ever imagine. The next thing I knew, we held a conference for fundraisers devoted to this concept of story telling. Peter Forbes was a keynote speaker and we passed out copies of The Story Handbook as required reading. Then one of our regions adopted the method, instructing their field-based staff in the art of telling their stories in a more personal and compelling way. Beautiful.

I continue to explore this vein, after afflicting the organization with this idea virus of story telling. Most recently, I have worked with a few colleagues to collect stories from the field and from partners and incorporate them into our toolbox for staff. Later this month we will publish a small book for a meeting in Monterey, Saving Our Seas: Stories of Marine Conservation. I'm excited about this effort and hope others will be.

People connect to stories; it is a tradition as old as human communication itself. We are a story telling species. Stories connect people to other people and to the lands and waters we protect. Like the songlines of the Aborigines, stories map a place in a way beyond symbols and geography. Stories are our way of connecting with each other and more broadly with the world. Think about it: when you get together with your friends, do you share stories?

If we're going to build a conservation ethic, we need to share our stories, to nurture a culture of story telling. We need to get at the heart of what makes our work relevant and important to people, to the future of our species and those with whom we share the earth, our island home.

What's your story?

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02 September 2005

A Tragedy in the Deep South

This has been a troublesome week, as Katrina wrecks havoc on the Gulf Coast. Enviros and NeoCons start pointing fingers at each other over whether the severity of this storm has any relation to global warming. Meanwhile, the relief effort seems positively underwhelming and even Newt Gingrich questions the preparedness of our Homeland Security. While the loss of life and livelihoods pales in comparison to December's tsunami, it is still beyond comprehension.

Especially when it hits relatively close to home: my wife's family is from Gulfport, Mississippi, practically the epicenter of Katrina's impact. Her parents met there and were married for 57 years until her father died this past June. We were in Gulfport a couple of months ago for the funeral and burial. Someone told us the cemetery was now under water. All of her family, cousins and aunts and second cousins, are okay, but their homes have either been lost or suffered damage. While others watched their businesses wash out to sea.

The fact is rising water temperatures will lead to more hurricane forming conditions -- hurricanes feed on warm water, it's where they get their strength. But more to the point is the damage may have been lessened had the islands and wetland marshes along the coast survived the onslaught of development and levee construction. As Andrew Revkin and Cornelia Dean wrote in The New York Times this week, the barrier islands are the first line of defense for the coasts, marshes are the second.

"Maybe it's because of all those casinos," a resident of Biloxi said. The casinos and development all along the Gulf Coast has depleted the already degraded wetlands and marshes, which provide coastal protection and natural flood control. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) spoke of the importance of restoring her state's coast to its natural state. Louisiana is losing ground most significantly due to erosion and the diversion of Mississippi River silt from the Delta. Some estimates say the Louisiana Coast has shrunk by an amount equal to the size of Rhode Island since the 30s. And the EPA estimates that the Mississippi Delta Region has lost roughly 95 percent of its floodplain forest.

It's hubris to think that we can continue to build indiscriminately in these areas and that we can simply throw engineering solutions at flood control. It comes down to money and, as David Usborne wrote in The Independent yesterday, "In the battle between dollars and nature, you know who wins."

And once again, who suffers most from environmental degradation and the misuse of natural services? The poor, who can ill afford to lose the protection afforded by nature.

I am not about to pass judgment on anyone involved in the response, this was clearly an unprecedented event of a magnitude that we can only imagine. The logistics, even before victims started shooting at rescue helicopters and each other, were clearly complicated. All we can do is pray for the victims and hope for their recovery.

Yet, I can't help looking at the satellite images of Gulfport, where everything south of the railroad tracks is wiped out, and recalling the images from Aceh Province, Indonesia, and elsewhere of eight months ago. I have to wonder when we will wake up to the real benefits nature provides and stop letting dollars trump it every time.

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