Practical Action for the New Planetary Reality

By Andrew Barnes On 30.05.2019 Climate changeEnvironmentPolicy & practiceResilience

We never used to have mosquitoes here in the winter. Now we have them all year round,” said Purnima Chaudhary, the co-ordinator of a flood resilience group we helped form in the Bardiya region of Nepal.

Year-round mosquitos for Purnima is undoubtedly an inconvenience, but it’s also tangible evidence of a changing climate. As is the very existence of the flood resilience group.

Two recent reports demonstrate just how much trouble we’re in. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report explores our reliance on nature for our survival, and how we’re destroying habitats, threatening species and abusing the global ecosystem with terrifying speed and power.

cyclone idai house

A home destroyed by Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe

An earlier report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change included a similar dire prognosis, which is already being played out. Earlier this year, three cyclones of unprecedented scale devastated parts of Mozambique, Malawi and India, leaving millions homeless.

More recently scientists at Cambridge University  have announced they are setting up a Centre for Climate Repair. This will explore radical approaches to undoing the damage we have inflicted on the planet, including refreezing the Earth’s poles (through the artificial creation of clouds to shield the area below from the sun) and collecting CO2 emissions and converting them into fuel. All of these measures come amid a suspicion that, even with the best of intentions, the most optimistic plans to reduce our impact on the planet will not go far enough to slow down climate change to a less than disastrous level. The Cambridge initiative is being co-ordinated by Prof Sir David King, formerly the UK Government’s chief scientific advisor. He warns that “what we do in the next 10 years will determine the future of humanity for the next 10,000 years”.

It seems we truly are standing at an existential crossroads. Do we continue our denial and carry on headlong into greater destruction? Or decide that now is the time to radically change our ways?

At Practical Action, we have been redefining the focus of our work in order to respond to the new planetary reality. We started by first looking back at our past.

Looking Back

Looking back, we are reminded of the philosophy of our founder, Fritz Schumacher, who was instrumental in creating and shaping our early existence.

Schumacher’s ideas on economics, the environment and human happiness seemed outrageously fanciful to many in the 1960s, but today we can see clearly just how insightful and prophetic they were.

He said we should never treat elements of the natural world as an asset that can be spent in the pursuit of even greater profit. We should treat them as precious capital to be put to work for the benefit of humankind – and always replenished. This point was echoed in the IPBES report.

To use a banking analogy, we are spending the earth’s resources as if they were in our current account. But, in reality, we are spending from the global savings account that has taken tens of thousands of years to accumulate. All our transactions are withdrawals and we’re making no new deposits.

As an illustration of just how much we are living beyond the planet’s means, the Worldwatch Institute calculates that there is 1.9 hectares of land for every person in the world for growing food and textiles for clothing, supplying wood and absorbing waste. The average Mozambican uses 0.45 hectares, while the top consumers are Americans, using a staggering 9.7 hectares. The planet could only support a fifth of the current global population if everyone consumed resources at the US rate.

Schumacher also advised us to stop measuring human progress in terms of GDP and money. Instead, we should think about the quality of life, the value of work, the health of relationships and effectiveness of our social and economic systems in caring for and empowering people. Again, a key recommendation of the IPBES report.

In his book, ‘Small is Beautiful’, Schumacher challenged development thinkers to stick to solutions that were people-shaped and people-sized. He vehemently opposed the idea of exporting complex commerce and manufacturing into countries without the infrastructure or skills to support them. That’s still our focus today. Small, community based proven solutions that can be taken to scale by others or be adopted by local or national policy makers.

Looking Ahead

We still hold the original values. We still believe that human ingenuity can overcome the world’s toughest problems. But we’ve had to refocus our work to make it effective in a rapidly changing world. We’ve identified four key areas of focus that will form the basis of our work.

The climate crisis is affecting people in the poorest countries in two different but equally devastating ways. The first is the need to adapt lives and livelihoods to new climate situations. Rains that used to come no longer do. Crops that used to grow now fail. So we’re helping people to adapt to new ways of living and working. The second is the need to be adequately prepared for climate shocks, such as extreme weather events. Early warning systems, preparation and planning can protect lives and livelihoods and enable people to get back to normal more quickly after the floods or cyclones have ended.

Most farming throughout the world, especially intensive and chemical-hungry farming, is no longer sustainable. We are degrading land for the sake of profit as we try to feed a global population that has doubled in the last 50 years. But we are fast approaching the time when the population can grow no further as we won’t have enough productive land to feed everyone. Unless, that is, we decide to make big changes to what we eat, consuming less meat and dairy products and more vegetables, grains and fruit. And big changes to how we produce food. That’s why we’re proving and promoting approaches to farming that work in harmony with nature rather than against it.

Climate change is also driving people away from rural areas where they find profitable or even subsistence farming impossible. They head for the cities in search of work and a better life, only to find themselves in sprawling slums piled high with rubbish and riddled with open sewers and their attendant disease. Cities in developing countries grow by 10% every year but the provision of water and waste services simply cannot keep pace. We’ve developed and proven innovative approaches for water and waste management and we’re sharing this knowledge with city authorities, utility companies and community groups.

Our final area of focus will be on clean, sustainable energy. This includes helping people to access the transformational power of clean electricity from the sun or flowing water. This will improve almost every aspect of their lives immeasurably, including their health, education and ability to make a decent living. And it also includes helping people to use alternative cooking fuels and stoves that don’t kill them or their children through harmful smoke inhalation.

Sharing to multiply

Everything we learn through our innovative projects around the world – both what works and what doesn’t – we share with others who can take our proven solutions into places where we have no presence or influence.

 

It is fabulous to see our publications being the default texts for development students and practitioners on topics such as ‘Engineering in Emergencies‘. Or our manual on the sustainable management of human waste becoming national policy in Bangladesh. Or the government of Benin asking us to advise them on how they should implement their national energy policy in ways that protect the environment and benefit their poorest people.

Through sharing in this way, ideas that start small can become big change for millions of people.

We believe our approach, and the thinking of our founder Fritz Schumacher, have never been more relevant or more needed.

We can all do something more

At Practical Action, we have some solutions, but we don’t have all the answers. For things to really change, we need to persuade our world leaders to make the right choices for our planet. Practical Action is a member of the UK Climate Coalition, which calls for politicians to end the UK’s contribution to climate change and pass ambitious laws that create a healthier environment for nature and people. We encourage you to find and sign up to equivalent campaigns in your part of the world.