Climate Change

Feeling Our Feelings About Climate Change

I don’t know about you, but I hate talking about climate change. When I hear a story on the radio about the latest record-breaking severe weather event, I want to plug my ears. Or when I read a news article summarizing the most recent dire scientific report, my eyes glaze over. I think to myself, “Yes, we already know. Everything is very bad and getting worse.” 

Can we take a moment to acknowledge that climate change just sucks

It’s a wrenching, intractable situation that feels crappy to even think about. Most of the time, I just don’t. But it’s not going away—and neither are my feelings about it.

I’m twenty-six. I’ve known about climate change for as long as I can remember, back when we called it global warming, and worried mostly about distant polar bears and coral reefs. I don’t recall when it changed from feeling like an alarming possibility to an unfortunate inevitability, but it has never felt acceptable to me. 

Growing up, I felt frustrated, indignant, and confounded as to how we could have gotten into this mess. Then in college, as I learned about the economic, industrial, and political systems that have driven the climate crisis, I got angry. I channeled my anger into a burst of climate activism—meetings, marches, protests—that never seemed to lead anywhere. 

And now? Honestly, I feel stuck. I don’t like feeling angry. The emotion and the activism didn’t sustain me. I’ve been told and I believe there’s a role for everyone in this struggle, but I haven’t found mine quite yet. 

I suspect that’s true for a lot of us.

Most of us aren’t activists or scientists who spend our days thinking about what the world is facing. Nor are we national leaders or corporate CEOs who have the responsibility and power to make major policy changes to address it. So where does that leave us?

You may notice I’m asking more questions than offering answers, but I’ll start here: I think we need to get real about our feelings. 

It’s the responsibility of our age to tackle the climate crisis head-on; to do everything we can to slow, reverse, mitigate, and adapt to it. But we can’t do any of that if we’re stuck feeling total despair or numbly ignoring it all. 

How I feel on a given day doesn’t really affect how changeable the situation is or is not. Except that it does. Our emotional state affects what we feel capable of doing—and therefore what we are capable of doing. 

While we continue taking everyday steps, as we’re able—voting for reps that take the problem seriously, voicing our support for needed policies, switching to renewables and energy-efficient everything—climate change keeps raging on. As we are bombarded with crisis after crisis, losses large and small, how are we going to keep our heads above water, emotionally? 

Acknowledging and accepting, for one. Not knowing about a problem doesn’t make it go away, just as knowing about it doesn’t make it any worse than before we were aware. I’m practicing bearing witness more and looking away less. 

Grief, despair, and anger are all appropriate responses to what’s happening to our world and our fellow human and non-human beings. Rather than stuffing those emotions down, I’m working on noticing, accepting, and really feeling each of these emotions as they come so that I can move through them. Recently, this has looked like taking time to process between listening to episodes of a podcast series about the origins of the climate crisis. I’m letting myself curse when the host points out something infuriating and allowing tears to bubble up at the heart-wrenching narratives of loss. Rather than forcing myself to listen to the next episode, then getting overwhelmed and giving up, I’m returning when I have the bandwidth to be present with the feelings it brings up.

And next? Let’s create and embrace the cultural transformations this moment demands. Taking climate action includes changing the way we live our lives. Many of the fundamental changes we need—resisting consumerism and rejecting the right of corporations to extract profit at any cost—aren’t fun or convenient. But I believe we have a lot to gain by having the courage to face the emotions and embrace the change!

Can we embrace real connections with each other by carpooling or taking public transit and accept the inconvenience?  Delight at the beauty we see when we take life at the pace of a walk or bike ride? Take satisfaction in buying used clothes, and making them last as long as possible? Accept the joys of giving and receiving by sharing tools, vehicles, homes, land? The nourishment of growing food and sharing it with others? 

It’s easy to feel that if I’m not participating in political activism or putting up solar panels, I’m not being part of the solution. That couldn’t be further from the truth. This thing is too big and far-reaching for anyone to be left out. I love the model put forward by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson to help everyone find their personal path to climate action. She says to ponder three questions: What brings me joy? What am I good at? What needs to be done? Each of our unique roles can be found at the intersection of the answer to those three questions.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information, see Climate Action Venn Diagrams.

I feel excitement and joy when I envision a world that has “solved” climate change, and my role in it. What I see is not just solar panels, heat pumps, and electric cars. It’s also thriving people who care for and are deeply connected to each other and the landscape. How about you?

I recently came across an interview with scholar, writer, and activist Mike Davis, who said: “I don’t think that people fight or stay the course because of hope, I think people do it out of love and anger.” Anger doesn’t sustain me. Hope comes and goes, depending on the day. But love? I think we all have experience acting out of love. And it sure does feel good.

This article first appeared in the Addison County Independent on September 15, 2022, as part of the Climate Matters: Perspectives on Change weekly column.

Ollie Cultrara works at two local farms and serves on the board of the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. They are beginning a Master’s in Leadership for Sustainability at the University of Vermont this fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Climate Matters: Our Agriculture Must Be Transformed for Survival

By now, most people have seen headlines from the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): This is our “do-or-die” moment. Nations need to collectively reduce their planet-warming emissions by roughly 43% by 2030 and stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere altogether by the early 2050s to avoid escalating catastrophic weather events. The U.S., the world’s second-greatest emitter of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate chaos, isn’t even close to being on track to get emissions into a safe zone. The Inflation Reduction Act will help somewhat, but we still have a long way to go and we’re running out of time.  The way we produce and consume food, especially the industrialized food system, which is highly developed in the U.S., is responsible for up to 37% of greenhouse gases; and climate chaos will wreak havoc in Vermont as elsewhere.

Agriculture and food-related businesses (from restaurants to supermarkets to composting) make a big contribution to Vermont’s livelihoods. Before COVID, about 65,000 Vermonters made their living from farms and food businesses. In New England, 219,000 jobs are indirectly a result of food system activity, at a total value of $71 billion. Food production in Vermont is concentrated on dairy, which accounts for approximately 70% of the state’s agricultural sales, uses over 80% of its working land, and helps to maintain our open landscapes. Beef and dairy cattle, however, along with pigs and other farm animals, contribute roughly 27% of methane emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA. Methane is relatively short-lived in the atmosphere, but it is over 25 times more potent at warming the planet than carbon dioxide. In addition to methane, manure applied to fields releases nitrous oxide, an even more powerful planet-warming gas; and additional emissions result from the production of fertilizer and running farm equipment.

The World Wildlife Fund claims that farmers must reduce their production of meat and dairy by a third in the next 10 years if scientific advice on limiting greenhouse gas emissions is to be met. Northern Ireland is already calling for a reduction of 1 million cattle and sheep to meet net-zero climate goals. But in the short term, if conventional Vermont dairy farmers reduce their herds, they move even closer to the bankruptcy cliff; and some argue that dairy production in other states will simply increase to compensate. On the consumer side, increasing numbers of people advocate for “plant-forward” diets, in which meat rarely if ever appears, or vegan diets that eschew meat altogether; and we now know that the production of beans, vegetables, and nuts emit less than half the greenhouse gases of animal products (with beef the biggest emitter). How can we make sense of this? What is a responsible path forward for producers AND consumers?

Producers face very difficult choices because their profit margins are so slim. Report after report tells us that agroecology or “ecological agriculture” that mimics nature, integrates cropping and livestock, incorporates agroforestry, and builds soil fertility is the best path forward. Agroecology is superior to the “climate-smart agriculture” touted by the U.S. government because it is also concerned with farmers’ livelihoods, good nutrition, restoring crop diversity and biodiversity, and building community well-being through investing in local and regional food systems. Yet agroecology is almost unknown in the U.S., although many of the practices that it encourages, such as organic agriculture, agroforestry, and rotational grazing on pasture, are growing in popularity and have strong environmental benefits. Scaled-up, agroecology would bring even more environmental and social advantages.

We would all benefit from more diversified agriculture in Vermont — diversification that will allow us to meet our fruit, nut, and vegetable consumption almost completely from Vermont products — as well as continuing to produce the meat and milk we consume. We ought to reduce red meat consumption substantially for health reasons and switch to pasture-raised meat. Dairy cows bred to beef bulls are a promising way to get better quality beef and diversify dairy farmers’ income. But the surest way to diversify is to make land, technical support, and financial support available to farmers who commit to using agroecology. Most young farmers are excited about its potential, while they are turned off by the prospects of conventional dairy farming. How about making farmland available to dairy farmworkers or other migrants who are fleeing regions made uninhabitable by climate disasters, lack of jobs, or conflict? Many migrants have farming backgrounds and are eager to contribute to their new homes. Food can help to knit together cultures as disparate as Somali Bantu and Yankee, as the Little Jubba Agrarian Common in Maine has discovered.

Climate chaos is a systemic problem that won’t be solved by individual actions. Shifting the responsibility to people who continue eating meat or don’t drive electric vehicles (yet) or haven’t replaced incandescent light bulbs with LEDs is an industry cop-out. These actions are all good, of course, but they aren’t nearly enough. The first thing that needs to happen is to stop drilling for oil and gas, stop pipelines and stop investing in extraction. This requires a big policy shift, based on the recognition that immediate change is essential for survival. It also requires major investments in reducing our need for energy (such as weatherizing and green roofs); subsidizing renewable energy (wind, solar and small-scale hydro in Vermont); and the infrastructure needed to live with renewables (free electric public transportation, standardized charging stations).

The food system also must re-orient to producing healthy food as locally as possible and paying its true cost, making sure everyone can access it by guaranteeing a livable wage to workers and an adequate safety net for children and others who can’t work, and protecting environmental quality so that future generations will have good food and a healthy environment. To accomplish this, we must wrest control from food industries so that farmers and communities can once again have real choices, decent prices for what is produced, and sound nutritional advice.

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Molly Anderson is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Food Studies at Middlebury College, where she teaches and directs the Food Studies Program. She lives in Middlebury and serves on the Middlebury Natural Foods Coop Board and the Middlebury Conservation Commission. She is interested in food system transformation toward healthier, more just, and environmentally sustainable options.

Can Fair Trade Help Address Climate Change?

October is Fair Trade Month! We all know that Fair Trade Certified products have deep social and economic impacts, but is it possible that they could also be part of the solution in addressing a changing climate? According to this article from our friends at NCG, Fair Trade has a key role to play and cooperatives are doing their part to support the effort:

When the fair trade story is told, people often focus on the social and economic benefits fair trade provides producers, which are significant. But the market stability that fair trade certification creates also empowers farmers to invest in farming methods such as regenerative agriculture, agroforestry and tropical reforestation projects that help to slow climate change.

Equal Exchange Cooperative Coffee Farmers. Photo courtesy of Equal Exchange

In May of 2018, food co-ops across the country partnered with Fair World Project to raise awareness about the inspiring environmental projects many fair trade producers have undertaken in tropical areas all over the world. In addition to selling over one million dollars of fair trade certified products, directly benefitting producer communities within our supply chain, collectively we raised $8,000 for Fair World Project’s Grow Ahead initiative, a grassroots effort to fund reforestation projects at Cooperative Norandino in Peru.

The cooperative is owned by 7,000 small-scale, fair trade and organic cacao, coffee, sugar and fruit farmers in northern Peru who will be using the funds to plant 69,000 native tree seedlings and build two plant nurseries. This is part of a larger farmer-led reforestation project covering 136 acres in total. Tropical reforestation remains a powerful and well-known method of drawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making Project Drawdown’s top ten list of potential climate change solutions.

Food co-ops continue to pursue and support projects like Cooperative Norandino’s because tropical areas of our world are critical parts of our supply chain, growing an enormous variety of agricultural products from staple grains like rice and quinoa, to widely used tropical oils like palm and coconut, to beloved treats like bananas, coffee, and chocolate. Many of the methods used to farm these products quickly and cheaply have taken an enormous toll on the people, local economies and the environment. We believe that working together, people and businesses can do better.

Shea Butter Cooperative. Photo courtesy of Alaffia.

Partnering with fair trade companies, farmer and producer cooperatives is one way of ensuring that the people involved throughout our supply chain are properly empowered economically and legally. Because tropical areas are also critical to the protection and improvement of Earth’s atmosphere, food co-ops collectively have chosen to invest in projects that are focused on protecting, growing and sustainably managing tropical rainforests, like the one our colleagues at Cooperative Norandino are pursuing, or our own carbon offset program, Co+op Forest.

We are honored to partner with inspiring organizations like Fair World Project, Cooperative Norandino and fair trade cooperatives all over the world to bring our customers the very best food the world has to offer in a more sustainable way. Look for fair trade products when you shop at the co-op, your purchase makes a difference.

 

*cover photo shows members of Cooperative Norandino. Photo credit to Fair World Project.