Google maps the oceans

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

WE HUMANS are air-breathing landlubbers and that shapes the way we see and treat the world. We don’t think much about what’s underwater or underground. So we’ve been dumping garbage into the oceans and taking what we want from them for years without considering the consequences. We’ve never had to look at any of it – until now.

We’re starting to see what lies below the surface and it’s not always a pretty picture. We see massive islands of plastic and other debris swirling in gyres around the world. We see 9,000-year-old, glass sponge reefs off the coast of BC that, until recently, were torn apart by trawl nets dragged across the ocean floor. We see the effects of climate change on Arctic sea ice and on the animals that live under the sea.

We’ll be able to see even more, thanks to a recent initiative by Google, along with National Geographic, the BBC and scientists and other partners from around the world. Google is adding the world’s oceans to its extensive Earth mapping. In a phone conversation with David Suzuki Foundation staff, John Hanke, director of Google Earth and Maps, admitted, “We had really overlooked two thirds of the planet.” Partly because of prodding from oceanographer Sylvia Earle, the company has embarked on a massive project as part of Google Earth 5.0 to map the oceans using sonar imaging, high-resolution and 3-D photography, video and a variety of other techniques and content.

Although the emerging picture is sometimes bleak, there’s a positive side. “If we can just see enough soon enough to pull back and give these areas a chance to recover, that’s my greatest hope,” Dr. Earle told us.

Mr. Hanke and Dr. Earle, who is explorer in residence at National Geographic and the founder of the Deep Search Foundation, said the project will allow us to learn more about human impacts on the Earth’s oceans. Dr. Earle noted that we have explored only about five percent of the ocean’s depths and protected less than one percent, yet the oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface.

“Some of these treasures are being destroyed before we even know what’s there,” Dr. Earle said, adding that often as soon as people find out about an ocean resource, they exploit it. Part of the idea behind Ocean in Google Earth is to show people what we have and what we stand to lose if we don’t smarten up. “People will be aware of not only what’s there but what’s been lost,” Dr. Earle said. “People don’t seem to widely appreciate how important it is to protect the systems that give us life.”

And the oceans do give us life. Half of the world’s oxygen comes from the ocean. In the process of photosynthesis, phytoplankton release oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to global warming. And when phytoplankton die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean… The phytoplankton are also an important food source for ocean animals ranging from small fish to giant whales, which, in turn, feed other animals up the food chain, including humans.

That’s just one example of how important our oceans are and of how everything in nature is interconnected.

We can only hope this new endeavour will lead to more concern for the state of the oceans and of the need to protect them. The glass sponge reefs, for example, are being considered for formal protection, and public support could make the difference. As Dr. Earle noted, “You can’t care if you don’t know and this a new way of knowing.”

Part of what makes it exciting is that it’s not just a tool for scientists and academics. “It’s going to be a lot of fun for adults and kids to learn about the oceans,” Mr. Hanke said, noting that the free program, which includes multiple layers of content and information, will continue to expand as more data from scientists, explorers and others is added.

We can no longer afford to be blind to the state of our oceans. Let’s hope this will open our eyes before there’s nothing left to see but destruction.

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The bubble bursts

EARTHFUTURE by Guy Dauncey

What are we to make of the world financial crisis? Some analysts are comparing it to the Crash of 1929, which triggered The Great Depression of the 1930s. Almost without exception, they assume it to be a bad thing. Pension funds are evaporating into thin air, people are losing their jobs and businesses are failing. If we picture the economy as a speeding vehicle carrying people to growth and prosperity, and the vehicle suddenly goes into a ditch, then, yes, clearly it’s a bad thing.

But what if the vehicle was accelerating down a road that led over a cliff? Might we not say, “Wow! That was a close one,” and be amazed that fortune should smile on us? The metaphor is not far-fetched, for our economy is rushing to disaster of an ecological kind – and when Nature’s ecosystems collapse, we all collapse.

Our economy is a bundle of activities through which we take Nature’s resources, add intelligence and use them to add comfort and pleasure to our lives. It is like a bubble that sucks in the real world of trees, fish, animals, plants, minerals, fossil fuels, land, water and topsoil and rolls on regardless, without accounting for what it leaves behind. The bubble can roll right over a beautiful ancient forest and grow fat on its fibre, declaring it “a good thing” in its annual accounts.

If the trees do not speak or explain their value in terms the bubble can understand, it is as if they have no existence. Humans who love the trees for what they are may organize to protect them, and sometimes they may win, causing parks and wilderness areas to be created, but apart from that the bubble rolls on consuming everything it touches.

And if the bubble discovers an amazing source of energy called fossil fuels, which allows it to move faster and more furiously, is this not a good thing? And if a group of people begins warning that fossil fuels leave a dangerous residue in the sky that traps the sun’s heat and if this is allowed to continue that all human existence will grind to a halt, will this not cause the drivers of the bubble to ask if they should stop? No – for they prefer voices that tell them not to worry, that the fears are probably a scam dreamed up by people who never liked the bubble anyway.

And if the drivers of the bubble are told that they really must stop because they are chewing up so much of Nature that if everyone lived the way people do in Vancouver, we would need three more entire planets to support us, would that cause the bubble to pause, and stop? No, for the bubble is guided by its own internal messages of growth, profit and gain and all other messages are simply programmed out.

When this bubble crashes, should we not then give thanks for the blessings of a fortunate accident? The mortgage funds tumble over the derivatives and hedge funds and the bubble’s financial hyperdrive lands on its knees while the regulators, who were supposed to prevent such a crash, were reciting their mantras in the “Temple of Economic Growth,” chanting, “Do not regulate. Let the market decide. The market knows best.”

This crash, then, while it is cruel and troubling for individuals and their families, may be the best thing that could have happened to our civilization. It gives us a chance to step out of the bubble and turn in a new direction towards ecological sustainability, to change the economy’s ruling principles so that Nature is never again left out of the picture.

It gives us a chance to invest the billions that will flow in economic stimulus packages in measures that will unhook our dependency on fossil fuels; make our homes and buildings more efficient; develop transit, high-speed trains, cycle routes and renewable energy; and restore our forests, grasslands and farmlands. It gives us a chance to breathe and move towards a different future.

Guy Dauncey is the author of nine books, including After the Crash: The Emergence of the Rainbow Economy. He is president of the BC Sustainable Energy Association.

All hands on deck

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Well, 2008 was a wild ride. A global economic crisis, elections here and in the US, turmoil in parliament and a worsening environmental situation – it’s enough to make you want to climb under the blankets and hope for the best. And there are some hopeful signs. But hope, unfortunately, is not enough. It’s going to take a concerted effort on everyone’s part to overcome the looming crises the world is facing.

Let’s look at the bright side, though. The US is swearing in a president who takes global warming seriously and who is listening to the scientists and other experts who tell us that the situation is outpacing our efforts to confront it. “The time for denial is over,” Barack Obama said in December. “We all believe what the scientists have been telling us for years now, that this is a matter of urgency and national security and it has to be dealt with in a serious way. That is what I intend my administration to do.”

The president-elect also recognizes that creating green jobs in areas such as renewable energy is a good way to stimulate and rebuild the economy, perhaps even replacing some of the jobs lost in the auto industry.

Globally, although the UN climate change talks in Poland [in December] yielded no breakthroughs in laying the groundwork for a strong global agreement in Copenhagen this coming December, some progress was made, especially in areas such as reducing deforestation to reduce carbon emissions.

Also on the global front, the United Nations Environment Programme and leading economists have called for a progressive “Green New Deal.” The UN Green Economy Initiative is aimed at giving nations the tools to shift to green economies through measures such as creating employment in renewable-energy technologies, ensuring that the value of natural services is included in economic accounting and encouraging sustainable urban planning.

“Transformative ideas need to be discussed and transformative decisions taken,” said Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and UNEP executive director. “The alternative is more boom and bust cycles; a climate-stressed world and a collapse of fish stocks and fertile soils…”

Whether or not these initiatives and proposed emissions-reduction targets will be enough to avert catastrophe after years of stalling by governments, including George Bush’s outgoing administration and our own government, remains to be seen. Unfortunately, Canada still seems to be beating around the “Bush.”

We earned the dubious honour of winning the Colossal Fossil award (as well as 10 daily fossil awards) at the climate change talks in Poland for doing more than any other country to impede progress. Canada also ranked second-last out of 57 countries on the international 2009 Climate Change Performance Index.

We could certainly use more far-sighted and imaginative leadership. But we can’t depend on the politicians – or on those business people who care more about short-term profits than long-term survival. We must remember that they are there to serve us and that if we speak loudly enough they will listen.

We must also take responsibility in our own lives. A Statistics Canada report notes that individual Canadians are responsible for almost half the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, through our vehicle and electricity use and the choices we make in the products we buy.

Rather than making us feel guilty, the report should show us how much power we have as individuals to make a difference through personal choices and small steps. Another Statistics Canada study showed that Canadians are making efforts to recycle, compost, switch to environmentally friendly electrical and plumbing products and vehicles, and more.

We can’t wait for politicians to save the world, but we do have to hold them to account. And we must all get informed and involved. If we act now, we – and our children and grandchildren – can hope to lead fulfilling and prosperous lives rather than moving from crisis to crisis. But the window of opportunity is closing a bit more every day.

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Jim Fulton 1950 – 2008 – Environmental advocate and ally will be sorely missed

by Milt Bowling

Pictures in the newspaper could not have prepared me for the bear of a man I met for the first time at the David Suzuki Foundation – Jim Fulton. Jim was one of those people whose gaze let you know you were being appraised as friend or foe in the first few seconds. His handshake and/or hug revealed how you’d fared.

Jim started as a probation officer in the Queen Charlottes and then entered politics, winning three successive elections as the NDP Member of Parliament for Skeena from 1979 to 1993. He then became the first executive director of the world-famous environmental organization, the David Suzuki Foundation. There, he gave selfless assistance to many groups doing their best to help our ailing planet. Ours, the Electromagnetic Radiation Task Force, was one of them, and I’ve met very few people who are such a quick study on the subject of harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation as Jim.

In 1997, the Vancouver School Board was persuaded that leasing out school roofs to cell phone companies for their microwave transmitters was a good way to raise money. It was an idea I did not agree with, especially because they chose my son’s elementary school as a location. After conducting extensive research that uncovered a number of unsettling facts, I organized the community and we successfully opposed the involuntary exposure of 600 children to this radiation. Another phone company then hid their transmitters inside a cross that they donated to the church right next to the school. An appeal to the Board of Variance resulted in the transmitters being taken down, which I have been told is a first in the world. Soon, other communities were asking for help and the Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR) Task Force of Canada was born.

As anyone who has taken on an environmental issue knows, you can get intense pushback from the affected industry and also from government regulatory agencies that may have been asleep at the wheel. You become “the problem.” In looking for supportive allies, I couldn’t have found better in Jim, who I met through my first benefactor, wildlife artist Robert Bateman.

Jim picked up on our concerns right away. We were thrilled that he wrote to then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Health Minister Allan Rock in November 1999, demanding that Parliament take our concerns seriously and act upon them. And this was on the Foundation’s letterhead! We felt lifted to a new level of credibility. Jim continued to prod the government on our behalf for years.

To offset political pressure that continued to build until 2002, Rock, by then Minister of Industry, announced that a review panel on health effects of cell towers would be set up. Jim immediately fired off a letter stating that our EMR Task Force had more experience on the issue than anyone else in Canada and demanded that we play a key role in the review. Not surprisingly, it took seven months to receive a reply from Rock, which stated that the committee was already set up without our help. Also not surprisingly, their report found no problem with the current setup, which gave the industry carte blanche to put their towers wherever they wanted – beside schools, day care centres, hospitals or seniors homes – without community input.

Our work continues around the world for the deployment of safe telecommunications infrastructures using available mitigating technology. We are a lot closer to the implementation of solutions than we were a decade ago, in large part because of the early boost given without hesitation by Jim Fulton. The planet lost a warrior on December 20, 2008 and we all lost a friend.

Milt Bowling is president of the Clean Energy Foundation and director of the Health Action Network Society. Reach him via or call 604-436-2152.

The chi chickens

EARTHFUTURE by Guy Dauncey

We keep chickens – five mature females and two youngsters – who we think are roosters. That spells possible trouble ahead, since the roosters may fight once they mature, but right now they are total buddies, scouting the garden for bugs, seeds, worms and anything else that pleases a young chicken’s palate.

These are some happy chickens. They have a custom-made home I made using a plan from a 1948 British gardening book, with cozy roosting boxes and a shaded space where they can shelter from the rain. For much of the year, however, we open the gate, giving them an acre of rural land to wander.

I never thought much about chickens before we had them. To see them in their free state has been a revelation. Every day they explore the garden, clean up fallen birdseed and scratch for bugs everywhere. In summer they jump for the lowest-hanging raspberries. These are wild birds that humans have domesticated; they are the closest living relatives of the dinosaur.

After a morning of hunting and gathering, they look for a quiet place with whatever sun they can find to lie in; our dog and cats don’t bother them.

Their chi – their life energy – is healthy and alive. It is so satisfying to see how they enjoy their daily explorations, how they bond together and how they play their little pecking order games, just as humans do. How they rush to hide a tasty morsel of food, trying their best to eat it in private. How they clearly enjoy their lives. And how they chatter – chickens make up to 200 different sounds, using 30 different phrases.

When dusk falls, they slowly make their way back to the henhouse; there’s always one who lingers for the last bug. One of our young cockerels has decided he prefers to roost in a tree so he makes an effortful jump-fly into the branches of the maple that overhangs the coop.

We’re vegetarian so we keep our chickens for their eggs, which they announce with a squawk. When they stop laying, we keep them till they die – or are killed, alas. We live in the country where mink, eagles, hawks and raccoons all fancy a tasty chicken, if they can catch one.

Contrast this with the life of a captive chicken, forced, if it’s laying, to spend its whole short life in a cage the size of a piece of paper, stacked on high with 30,000 other birds. If it’s a broiler, raised for its meat, it is crammed in a space so crowded that each fellow chicken has an average of just 550 square centimetres (9 inches by 9 inches) in which to live out its entire life. Being crammed so tightly, they peck each other. To prohibit them, the ends of their upper and lower beaks are forcibly cut off, using an electrically heated blade.

In Britain, during the run of celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s TV series, Hugh’s Chicken Run, residents of the Devon town of Axminster were invited to see free-range and intensive systems alongside each other in a shed. Many people left in tears and half of the four million viewers who saw the shows said they would only buy free-range chicken.

This is our doing, driven by profit and the desire for a cheap chicken wing, regardless of the pain it causes. We cause the birds’ suffering and we can end it, if we choose.

Sweden banned battery cages in 1995, Austria in 2004, Germany in 2007 and all of Europe will do so in 2012. In California, voters in November’s elections approved a motion to end the use of battery cages, as well as cramming veal calves and breeding pigs into cages and crates so small that the animals cannot turn around or fully extend their limbs.

What about Canada? Which of our politicians will speak up for the chickens? They are awaiting our choice to set them free.

Guy Dauncey is president of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, editor of EcoNews and author of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change and other titles. He lives in Victoria.

If I had a trillion dollars

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Many of you are working to recycle, reduce energy consumption and improve the world for your families and neighbours. The collective impact of these many small efforts is making a big difference.

Just think what you could do with $4.1 trillion.

That’s how much the US and 17 European countries are spending to bail out financial institutions involved in a crisis that began in the US and now reverberates around the world. The final amount will likely be a lot more. It’s difficult to fathom such a large number, but consider that one trillion seconds is about 32,000 years. To top it off, most of the details are secret; we don’t really know what the money is being used for, although it probably hasn’t stopped your retirement savings funds from plummeting.

The effect on people in developing nations is even worse. Most of them didn’t have savings to begin with; now, the economic crisis, coupled with the effects of the climate crisis, including drought and food shortages, is causing more of our human family to suffer from extreme poverty and joblessness.

Just think what they could do with $4.1 trillion.

A report from the Institute for Policy Studies, Skewed Priorities: How the Bailouts Dwarf Other Global Crisis Spending, points out that the amount is 40 times what the US and Europe are spending in developing nations on programs to deal with poverty ($90.7 billion) and climate change ($13.1 billion, none of it from the US). In fact, the US spent far more to bail out insurance firm AIG ($152.5 billion) than all the countries together spent on developmental aid last year.

And what did the AIG executives do after getting the taxpayer-funded bailout? They celebrated with a $440,000 trip to a luxury spa resort. The cost of the trip is about what the US spent on food aid last year to Lebanon, “a country struggling to recover from conflict,” according to the IPS.

If we think we needn’t worry about what happens to developing nations because it isn’t affecting us, we should remind ourselves that just as everything in nature is connected, so is everything in our global economic and political systems. Increased international job competition and reduced export opportunities are just two of the smaller impacts mentioned in the IPS report.

But the worst meltdown isn’t the global economy. Another report, Climate Safety, from the Public Interest Research Centre, shows that the Arctic’s late-summer ice is melting much faster than scientists predicted and may disappear within three to seven years. The cascading consequences of such an event could be catastrophic.

Just think what we could do with $4.1 trillion.

Instead of giving companies these huge sums of money so they can continue bbuying and selling, merging and paying their executives obscene salaries and bonuses, we could put it toward renewable energy, sustainable urban planning, and research into ways to lessen the impact of climate change – things that really would stimulate economies.

Canada has continued to bolster its reputation as a country lacking in imagination and concern for the planet. Environment minister Jim Prentice told Alberta business leaders recently, “We will not aggravate an already weakening economy in the name of environmental progress.” His job is to protect the environment yet he sounds like the minister of finance.

But if Canada is hindering progress other nations are showing more enlightened leadership. French president Nicolas Sarkozy said before heading to Poland [for the United Climate Change Conference in December] that nations must keep their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: “Climate change is so important that we cannot use the financial and economic crisis as a pretext for dropping it.”

As citizens, we can and must do everything possible to keep our finite world alive and healthy. Along with changes we are making in our own lives, we must also call on our leaders to stop downplaying the unequivocal science that tells us failing to quickly address the climate crisis will make the economic crisis seem like a minor blip in history.

We could tell them where to put that $4.1 trillion.

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Environmentalist Thelma MacAdam passes peacefully

by Lorna Hancock

Thelma MacAdam, a well-loved and respected environmentalist, passed away in her sleep on December 19. She was bright and active right up until her last day. I am one of thousands of people who are honoured to have known her, and will miss her greatly.

Thelma MacAdam

As Chair of the Environmental Committee for Burnaby-based Health Action Network Society for 25 years, Thelma provided good, solid, scientific arguments against chloramines, chlorine, fluoride, incineration, food irradiation, pesticides, herbicides, mercury amalgam and many other topics. This modest, but determined, Port Coquitlam grandmother and environmental activist won recognition across Canada. Her name Thelma means will and volition in Greek, qualities she certainly embodied.

The following is a partial list of her achievements: 

  • 1989 – Homemakers Magazine’s top 10 women Making a Difference.
  • 1999 – BC Environmental Network honour for outstanding community service on behalf of the environment.
  • 1999 – Featured internationally in the book Sweeping the Earth,Women Taking Action for a Healthy Planet.
  • 2000 – Environmental Awareness Award at the Spirit of Community Awards, Tri-Cities Society for Community Development.
  • 2002 – City of Burnaby Environment Award in Communications

Thelma was quoted in major Canadian media and she was a frequent talk show guest. Rafe Mair said, “I admired Thelma enormously. The community was a much better place for her fighting the fight for our atmosphere long before it was fashionable to do so. She did indeed make a difference.”

Lorna Hancock is executive director of HANS Health Action Network Society –

This is your moment

EARTHFUTURE by Guy Dauncey

We live in exciting times. We don’t need to pray for the day when real change will start rolling. It’s rolling now so don’t pass this one up! Things may seem sleepy in Canada, but don’t kid yourself. Just because the government in Ottawa is stuck in the 1950s, it doesn’t mean the rest of us have to be.

What does it mean to wake up and join in? The answer to this question is unique to you, whether you are reading this in a café, on the bus, in the bath or over the breakfast table. I may be writing for a quarter-million Common Groundreaders, but, in reality, I’m writing for just one person – and that’s you.

Story #1. In 1995, Josep Puig, a Green Party city councillor in Barcelona, Spain, worked with the city staff to install solar hot water panels at City Hall. He then worked with local builders and the city to craft a bylaw that required all large new buildings in the city to install solar hot water. The bylaw was copied by other towns in Catalonia, then by Madrid, and in 2006 solar hot water panels were made compulsory for new and renovated buildings throughout Spain. One man, supported by good partners, kick-started Spain’s solar revolution.

Story #2. In 2002, Felix Kramer, an entrepreneur and market strategist in Palo Alto, California, founded a group called CalCars with the goal of bringing clean, advanced vehicles to market much faster than the major car companies. In September 2004, the group converted a Toyota Prius into a plug-in, hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) that could run on batteries for the first 60 to 80 miles. They then showed people what they had done. By 2007, Ford, Toyota and GM were all planning to have PHEVs on the road by 2010, and in October 2008, $1 billion was assigned to advance the development of PHEVs in the $700 billion bank bail-out. One man, supported by a group of very geeky software engineers, is changing the automobile industry globally. See

Story #3. In September 2003, Cindi Seddon, principal of Pitt River Middle School in Coquitlam, BC, decided to ditch the junk food that KFC, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut were serving in the school cafeteria, replacing it with real food for her students. She also turfed junk food out of the vending machines. She had solid support from her parent committees and staff, but the Coquitlam School Board thought otherwise and ordered the junk food back on the menu, claiming it had that authority and she did not. Cindi’s actions triggered a media storm and a public debate and, as a result, in 2007, the province banned highly processed foods and foods with large amounts of sweetener, salt, fat and calories from school cafeterias and vending machines. If Cindi had not decided enough was enough, our kids would still be eating junk food in BC schools today.

Somewhere in your unfolding life there may be a story like this that will be your story. It may begin with someone knocking on your door, asking, “Can you help us?” Or it may come from within as a quiet idea and a sprig of determination.

You don’t need to know how you’re going to achieve your idea. You can learn as you go along. You need just three things: 1) A clear image in your mind of what the end result will be. 2) The skills to pull it off, which probably include people skills and partnership-building skills. 3) The willingness to put one foot in front of the other and to keep going when you meet obstacles, seeking help and advice from your partners. If your first thought is “I don’t have the skills,” go out and get them. You won’t regret it.

Do you have a small voice, saying, “I really want to contribute to a better world, and I’ve got this idea…?”

If you do, don’t pass it up. This is your moment.

Guy Dauncey is president of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, editor of EcoNews and author of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change and other titles. He lives in Victoria.

Blowin’ in the wind

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Energy underpins everything we do. Human societies have become increasingly complex, requiring ever larger-scale sources of continuous energy. Now, energy fuels not only our activities, but our economies as well. If we don’t choose our energy sources wisely, we can do more harm than good.

Non-renewable energy sources such as fossil and nuclear fuels are not sustainable and have also taught us that technological advances often come at great cost. These fuels can never be a long-term solution because they will run out. They also create emissions that pollute our air, water and soil and contribute to global warming or long-term radioactive waste problems.

Renewable energy sources will not run out and they don’t cause the same kinds of environmental problems as non-renewables. But that doesn’t mean we should adopt renewable energy carelessly. Biofuels can create problems if fuel production comes at the expense of food production. And wind power, if not properly planned and sited, can harm birds and bats (although Danish studies of 10,000 bird kills revealed that almost all died in collisions with buildings, cars and wires; only 10 were killed by windmills).

Alternative energy sources are absolutely necessary. Global warming will kill birds and bats, as well as other species, in much greater numbers than wind power. We need to believe in our ability to develop solutions. During three decades of producing the TV program The Nature of Things, we’ve often encountered difficulties filming in exotic locations. Back when we worked with film, we always took a lighting person with us. I dreaded working with one lighting guy because whenever he was faced with a demanding challenge, he’d respond, “It can’t be done.” We’d have to cajole him until we accomplished the task, but it drained the crew’s morale and wore us down. Another lighting person would respond, “Well, this is a tough one, but let’s give it a try.”

The mental attitude that underlies the way we approach any challenge is a huge part of how well we deal with it. For more than 20 years, leading scientists have warned us that the dangers of runaway global warming are so great that we cannot continue along the same path. Yet the response (usually led by the fossil-fuel industry) has been “It’s junk science” or “It’s too expensive; it’ll destroy the economy” or “It’s impossible to meet the reduction targets.” These kinds of reactions demoralize or paralyze society.

Compare those comments on the challenge of climate change with the American response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1. There was a sense of solidarity of purpose, to win the war or to beat the Russians to the moon. Throwing everything at winning led to all kinds of unexpected bonuses: the American economy blazed out of the Depression, while the race to the moon resulted in the Internet, 24-hour news channels, GPS and cell phones. Making a commitment to resolve a serious crisis generates opportunities and creates jobs.

Already, renewable-energy technologies are creating employment and giving economies a boost around the world. Countries like Denmark and Germany started shifting to renewable energy sources after the OPEC oil embargo in the 1970s. Today, Denmark obtains 20 percent of its energy from wind power and is aiming at 50 percent by 2020. Germany, which obtains 14 percent of its energy from wind, is the major exporter of wind technology and has created more than 82,000 jobs in the wind sector and more than 200,000 renewable-energy jobs in total. Wind power has become the country’s fastest growing job creator over the past three decades.

Even the U.S. Energy Department believes that wind power could provide one fifth of that nation’s power by 2030. Other studies have shown that wind, solar and biofuel energy could create five million US jobs by 2030.

The problem with the climate challenge is not a llack of solutions; it is a lack of will. As we saw with our lighting technicians, our attitude toward what confronts us will have a huge impact on how we achieve results.

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Raising a village, one cup at a time

by John M. Darch

For more than three decades, I have been involved with numerous natural resource projects in North America, Africa and Asia, meeting many interesting (and sometimes unsavoury) people. None, however, compare with the intriguing and friendly Thais. Like most Western entrepreneurs in Thailand, I was mostly involved with the established business society. It was not until 2006 when my Thai friend Ponprapa Bunmusik introduced me to the Akha hill tribe people of Doi Chaang near Chiang Rai and I spent time with them that I began to understand their struggle for dignity and their desire to be more than a tourist attraction.

Their story seemed incredulous: a hill tribe living in Doi Chaang Village (primarily of Akha heritage) had, through sheer determination and dedication, created a viable business cultivating an outstanding quality coffee. I was surprised that coffee was even grown in Thailand, never mind that it was being achieved with no government assistance or donations.

I learned that the villagers wanted to expand their business internationally and my friend wondered if I would be interested in another Thai business venture. I agreed to meet them out of politeness and was introduced to Khun Wicha Promyong, the man responsible for leading the Akha tribe in their quest to be self-sufficient. Wicha, a former world-travelled entrepreneur, comes from southern Thailand and having enjoyed the privileges of education, healthcare and wealth, he gave all of it up more than 30 years ago to live and travel with Thailand’s hill tribes. His home is now with “his people,” the Akha hill tribe in Doi Chaang village and his “mission” is to help them have dignity and to become self-sustaining.

L to R: Brother Wicha, Doi Chaang village leader Piko Saedoo, John M. Darch

When we met in Bangkok, Wicha explained how the many hill tribes originally migrated from southwestern China, eventually settling in scattered, isolated communities in the mountainous regions of Laos, Vietnam and Northern Thailand. Apparently, at one time, the hill tribes of Northern Thailand sustained themselves through slash and burn horticulture, but the increased population of the last century depleted the land and many of the hill tribes resorted to cultivating opium for survival.

Rich in culture and tradition, shrouded in myth and legend, the Akha people have no official written language, but maintain a detailed, oral history and live life according to the “Akha Way,” a spiritual, moral and social philosophy that governs behaviour and emphasizes strong ties to land and family. Yet, of all the hill tribes, few were as downtrodden, shunned or as impoverished as the Akha people.

Traditional handcrafted Akha Silver Headdress for ceremonial occasions such as marriage and harvest.

Arriving at Doi Chaang village (literal translation: Elephant Mountain), I was expecting the familiar destitute village that had become the symbol of the typical hill tribe community. However, here was an energetic farming community, complete with rudimentary electricity, running water, a school and a medical clinic. Some 20 years ago, in the hope of steering hill tribes away from cultivating opium, His Majesty the King of Thailand directed the farmers be given coffee plants. Sadly, because the farmers were acting independently and were inexperienced in business practice, their lives barely improved. To sell his beans, each farmer had to transport them some 70 kilometres to Chiang Rai, the nearest city, where the international coffee dealers kept the farmers divided and paid them minimal prices. In frustration, the Akha villagers turned to Wicha, who lived in Chiang Rai, for help. As a first step, Wicha encouraged all the Doi Chaang farmers to become a co-operative, thereby making it impossible for the coffee dealers to play one family against another. His next focus was educating the farmers in the importance of quality and productivity. In just over six years, this once small, isolated, poor village was transformed.

In my meeting with Wicha, he pointed out where clear-cut sections from past farming practice are now being reforested with a variety of trees, bushes and plants. The reforestation supports the production of various crops, which not only provide food, but are also sold to help support and diversify the village’s economy. This cultivation method maintains soil quality, as the canopy protects against the sun and the rain and eliminates the need for continuous weeding and the use of harmful chemicals. The result is rich, fertile soil that sustains diverse crop production for present and future generations.

I couldn’t help but feel somewhat guilty. My own business ventures have been in natural resource development where the resources are eventually depleted, projects with a finite life that has inevitable consequences for employees and their families. I was now presented with a business that could expand without depleting resources or exploiting workers and their families. So what did the people want with me? Wicha didn’t ask me for money and I didn’t offer. Instead, he wanted a business relationship for his people. As I learned, Doi Chaang’s success was such that production had exceeded demand in Thailand, and Wicha, forever the visionary, wanted me to introduce their coffee to the North American market. There were two conditions: to ensure the villagers’ self-esteem, their coffee had to be sold under the name Doi Chaang (Elephant Mountain) and the label had to bear the words “single-origin.”

It is important to understand that these people do not want charity, but a fair price for their coffee. The Akha farmers told me they want people to buy their coffee for the “quality,” not out of sympathy, as beyond improving their lifestyle; the most important thing to these people is respect and recognition of their achievements.

Wicha told me that international investors and coffee buyers constantly approach these people, looking to invest and control their coffee production. Their intent is to blend the beans with other coffees and market them under a different name because “Doi Chaang” sounds too ethnic. The potential buyers argue that they must have control and that it would be too expensive and difficult to market internationally a single-origin, Arabica coffee from Thailand, essentially unknown outside Asia.

I was captivated and immediately contacted Wayne Fallis, a colleague in Canada with extensive experience in food exporting and importing. I convinced him that I had found a project that would offer more than a financial return. We then sought the opinion of Calgary-based, Shawn MacDonald, well known for his extensive knowledge of coffee. MacDonald not only confirmed that Doi Chaang Coffee was a “world class” coffee, but he agreed to join our venture as Roast Master and vice-president of operations. And so we began what is probably a unique business arrangement in the coffee world. The farmers maintain total ownership and control of their own Thai company and domestic sales. In addition, they would also have a “carried” 50 percent interest in the Vancouver and Calgary based Canadian company, Doi Chaang Coffee Company, created to roast and distribute Doi Chaang coffee in North America. My colleague and I agreed to personally provide 100 percent of the finance required for all aspects of the Canadian operation leaving the hill tribe to focus on production, quality control and expansion.

This structure provides the hill tribe people with a no-lose business arrangement. We buy the green beans from the farmers, for cash, at a price in excess of the recommended price, which gives them an immediate profit and the ability to continue their coffee production. And because of the ownership in Doi Chaang Coffee Company, they also receive 50 percent of the Canadian company’s profits without any cost to them.

I am proud of how the Akha farmers use their coffee revenues to improve the standard of living for their community and the quality of their coffee. Having been isolated and impoverished for so long, they are now recognized and praised for their achievements, held up by Thailand officials as a “role model” for other hill tribe communities. In 2007, the farmers demonstrated their commitment to their community by building the Doi Chaang Coffee Academy, at their own expense. All hill tribe farmers may attend at no cost to learn about co-operative business practices, diverse crop production, quality control and sustainable agriculture. The farmers are also taught personal money management skills and the importance of education and healthcare. The ultimate goal is for the hill tribes to be accepted and welcomed as productive, contributing members of Thai society.

I am determined to make Doi Chaang Coffee a success in North America because I strongly believe that this is an alternative and viable way of doing business with the coffee farmers. I believe in the Akha hill tribe’s courage to persevere and I believe in their determination to better themselves and take control of their own future. I believe in their children, their community, their potential and their ability to sustain and grow their own business without any negative impact on their culture, community or environment.

John Darch is the chairman of Doi Chaang Coffee in