How does social change happen?

“We live mythically and integrally”— Marshall McLuhan

Changing the world remains a complex challenge, with no infallible formula for success. Nevertheless, we possess the record of those who have tried, from the 3000-year-old Taoist I Ching, to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, Brigitte Berger’s 1971 Societies in Change, and recently, The 8 Laws of Change by Stephan Schwartz in the U.S. 

The I Ching describes Taoist principles of following nature’s patterns in one’s pursuit of social influence. The value of patience as well as perseverance, and the warning to “adapt to the times but remain firm in your direction,” provide timeless wisdom for citizens.

Some early Greenpeace activists were influenced by the I Ching, and more directly by the Quakers, Mahatma Gandhi, Chipko in India (the original tree-huggers), and American activist Saul Alinsky. The Quakers had confronted repression with pacifist moral dignity and sailed ships into nuclear test zones, inspiring the first iconic Greenpeace action. 

Gandhi borrowed Quaker tactics in his campaign to liberate India from British colonization. Gandhi’s march to the sea represents quintessential social activism: inspiring thousands to participate in a meaningful commitment, exposing an oppressors’ violence, winning the battle for moral authority, and — most importantly — reframing the status quo story, not with words, but with symbolic, non-violent action.

As a young antiwar activist in the 1960s, I met older radical Ira Sandperl at the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, in California, which he had founded with pacifist folksinger Joan Baez. One evening, Sandperl asked me, “Do you want to know the secret to organizing?” 

“Yes,” I replied. 

“Be organized,” he said.

Sandperl talked about attention to details, articulating clear goals, and organizing the work that must be done to achieve those goals. Never turn down a volunteer, he would advise. The work to do is practically infinite, so if a movement does not have a job for someone who wants to contribute, the alleged leaders are not performing their job as organizers. 

The Quakers and Gandhi practiced a creative non-violence that included absolute respect for one’s adversary, to the point of not even insulting them. Saul Alinksy, whose Rules for Radicals influenced Greenpeace tactics, took a somewhat different view.  “Ridicule,” he believed is one of the activist’s “most potent weapons.” 

“Go after people and not institutions,” he advised. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Alinsky became a brilliant tactician, more aggressive than the Quakers or Gandhi, more willing to embarrass a perpetrator. In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi has said that “The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in … mental attitudes and values.

We do not have to assume that one style is correct and the other wrong. Tactics must reflect circumstances, and as ecologists, we might understand the value of diversity. In any case, the tactics of The Quakers, Gandhi, Chipko, Baez, Sandperl, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Alinksy reflect a common understanding that the agent of change  has to shift the culture’s prevailing moral story. 

Classical theories of Social Change

Philosophers have attempted to explain social change, driven by evolution, conflict, natural cycles, economy, technology, and so forth. They theories have generally failed to provide a recipe for change. 

Evolutionary social theory assumed that social change reflects biological evolution, an inevitable advance through predictable stages from simple to complex, from so called “primitive” to metaphysical, then scientific and industrial culture. 

Historians Oswald Spengler (Decline of the West, 1918) and Arnold Toynbee (A Study of History, 1956) assumed societies moved through a rise, decline and collapse cycle. Vilfredo Pareto observed that social change often occurs when one elite group grows decadent, and another elite simply replaces them. Conflict Theory suggests that powerful elites maintain the status quo until oppressed groups rise up in struggle. We know, however, that conflict itself does not guarantee change and can even obstruct change. 

Karl Marx and others believed that economic forces drove social change, and for Marx  specifically, class conflict over control of production infrastructure. Technological theories suggest that innovation creates new conditions to which societies adapt.

Each of these these ideas may identify a possible agent of change, but the theories over-generalize. Social change is not simply biological evolution, not linear, not purely cylcical, nor driven only by class conflict or innovation.  

Marx and Frederick Engels did accurately observe that neither individuals nor institutions come into being independently. Societies reflect nature in this regard: They are living systems, dynamic and complex, and no part of the system exists except in relationship with other forces. The relationship between nature and society was observed more accurately by Taoists and indigenous communities that honoured and learned from the dynamic patterns of nature.

Systems  

When Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media, “We live mythically and integrally,” he referred to society as a living system, evolving within a web of complexity, with no single change driver. Biological evolution itself is not linear, nor cyclical. Evolution often consists of chaos, bursts of growth, transformation, collapse, disruption, randomness, and novelty.   

Systems cannot be managed by any subsystem. Living systems change with vast, interacting inputs and feedbacks. When one disturbs a system in flux, inputs can have unintended consequences. We might observe, for example, that advanced technology provides benefits for some people, while contributing to ecological deterioration. Living systems don’t behave as we might wish. 

The 2007 book Getting to Maybe: How the World was Changed, by Frances Westley and others, discusses three classes of problems within systems. Some problems, such as riding a bicycle, appear relatively simple and easily replicable. Other challenges — building an energy infrastructure, are complicated, tricky, but a practitioner gets better with practice. However, some dilemmas — raising a child or changing a social policy — are complex. There exists no infallible recipe for shifting a complex system. Getting to Maybe, observes that when one sets out to change a complex system, expect:

1. you will be changed by the process

2. the goal may change along the way

3. relationships, not individuals, do the changing, and…

4. the system may not change in the way you intend. 

When working with complex social systems, change agents must influence the larger context — the cultural story — and then let that context find its new state of dynamic homeostasis, which is not a state that will be designed, engineered, or managed by anyone. 

Actions reverberate, theoretically forever, throughout the entire system. Every action represents participation in a dynamic network, and that action will influence the entire system in ways not predicted or intended by the actor, including feedback on the actor. In modern politics and media theory, we call this “blowback.” 

Successful social innovators will study patterns of behaviour systems. Social systems, like biological systems, remain in a dynamic, shifting balance, until homeostasis is so disrupted that the system passes through a “state shift.”

Change the Story

The 8 Laws of Change by Stephan Schwartz reflect these characteristics of dynamic living systems. Schwartz observes that (rule 1) successful change agents work in networks, sharing a “common intention,” and although they share goals, they (2) remain unattached to “cherished outcomes.”  

Schwartz reports that successful change agents (3) accept long-term, generational change, and (4) do not covet fame, credit, or power. They (5) respect all other contributors, even adversaries, and (6) practice absolute non-violence, equality, fairness, and leadership without arrogance or control. 

Finally, (rules 7 and 8), Schwartz describes how effective activists, make a personal, life-affirming choice to live with integrity, in both private and public action. They practice personal introspection and become a living model for the principles they espouse. They walk the walk. 

The Greenpeace documentary, How to Change the World, articulates five “rules” for change. Writer, directory Jerry Rothwell explains: “This isn’t intended to be a definitive proscription, but these were the themes that I noticed among the original Greenpeace activists.”  

“The revolution will not be organized,” recalls the nature of complex systems. Goals, yes. Cherished outcomes? You’re dreaming. 

“Let the Power Go” suggests that modesty, in the face of complexity remains appropriate. “Put your body where your mouth is,” and “Fear Success” are other ways of saying “integrity” and “modesty.” Greenpeace co-founder, and and 1940s pacifist Ben Metcalfe used to warn the younger activists: “Fear success.” Why? Success brings notoriety, money, and power, that can corrupt the best intentions. Fear success, because with success, your own weaknesses will be exposed. The convincing agent of change must overcome his or her own attractions to the spoils of victory.

Finally, if all else is in order, “Plant a Mind Bomb.” In the early television era, Greenpeace cofounder Bob Hunter used this term, mind bomb, to describe what today we might call a “meme” or “going viral.” All the great social transformers — Gandhi, the Suffragists, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, Aung San Suu Kyi, Chipko, Greenpeace — understood, often intuitively, that their actions had to disrupt the cultural myths that protected the status quo. 

The new story is not necessarily written in words. It is written by actions. Placards and banners prove far less effective than visible personal sacrifice at the precise point of the injustice, as witnessed in Gandhi’s well-trained volunteers accepting brutal beatings on their march to the sea. In one afternoon, the Indian people captured the moral high ground, and the British exit became inevitable. 

This is the power to unsettle the taboos and deceits that keep the power structure justified in the public mind, whether in 1916 or 2016. Effective social change tactics require extraordinary creativity and social awareness, but once the cultural spell is broken, the system has already begun its transformation. 

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Links and resources: 

Change in complex systems:

Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows, 2008.

Seven lessons for leaders in systems change,” Center for Ecoliteracy.

The Systems Bible, John Gall, 2003

Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan, MIT Press, 1964

Mind and Nature, Gregory Bateson, E.P. Dutton, New York,1979;

How do systems get unstuck?” Deep Green, April 2015

Coming Back to Life, Joanna Macy, 1998 

 

Some useful books on social change: 

Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky, 1969 

Societies in Change:  Brigitte Berger, 1971

Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen, 1999

The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell, 2000 

Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed, Frances R. Westley, 2006

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Women of Color Against Violence, 2007

The 8 Laws of Change by Stephan Schwartz, 2015

 

Influential novels about social change

Animal Farm, George Orwell 

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

The Melancholy of Resistance, Lazlo Kraznahorkai

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee 

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver 

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

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Make-or-break moment for Arctic protection

This week, an unremarkable event can play a remarkable role to protect life in the Arctic.

A part of the permanent ice cover on which life in the Arctic depends can soon be protected from destructive activities. If this protection is to become reality, a group of people must now make the right decision.

OSPAR is the name of a little-known, but very important organisation, in which fifteen European countries cooperate to protect the marine environment in a huge area of the sea stretching all the way from Spain to the North Pole. This week delegates from these countries meet in Gothenburg, Sweden, to discuss the establishment of an Arctic Marine Protected Area (MPA) located in the international waters north of Greenland. The area is pie-shaped, almost the size of the United Kingdom.

The Arctic is warming at a rate of almost twice the global average and consequently is experiencing severe climate impacts – including the alarmingly rapid melting of sea ice. Some scientists warn the Arctic Ocean could have ice-free summers by 2030. This year saw a new record low level for Arctic sea ice extent during the normally ice-packed month of January.

Some areas of the Arctic are projected to remain ice covered longer than other parts according to scientists. Polar bears use the ice for hunting and mating, walruses feed from sea ice platforms, and this is also where harp seals give birth to their pups to mention a few examples of why these areas are crucial for the Arctic ecosystem.

It is crucial that these areas are protected from destructive industrial activities, as they could be devastating for the species dependent on this area for survival.

Part of this area falls within the responsibility of the OSPAR, and this could be a potential habitat for ice dependent species in the future as the ice melts in other places. The negotiators that meet this week are set to put the final touches on a deal that will hopefully be agreed by governments later this year.

Today less than 1.5% of the entire Arctic Ocean has any form of protected status. In international waters, the global commons belonging to all mankind, there is no protection at all. Protecting this piece of the puzzle is therefore a very important step towards saving the Arctic, and agreeing on this marine protected area should be a no-brainer.  

Yet, some countries are resisting. Although there has been strong support by the majority of the OSPAR countries, Norway and Iceland with the support of Denmark have blocked the process at several occasions. These countries argued in the past that the proposal was not rigid enough in its technical content, and that the protection of the Arctic should be dealt with in other fora. In recent months the technical aspects of the proposal has been significantly improved. OSPAR is currently the only international forum that is taking responsibility for the protection of the Arctic high seas any attempt to block the proposal with technicalities at this stage are therefore completely unacceptable.

There is reason to fear that they in Gothenburg once again will try to stall the process. Having refused to participate in the process of defining the protection, they might present feeble technical arguments solely with the intention to delay the process, thus preventing any measures that is designed to protect the Arctic, which could stand in the way of their interest to exploit the Arctic.

That is why Greenpeace will be on site this week in Gothenburg. Through an Arctic exhibition we will remind the delegates that even though they meet in a grey and dull room, they have the power to protect a beautiful place with an immensely rich ecosystem bursting with life. We will show the delegates that over seven million Arctic defenders are watching them, and expecting the meeting participants to deliver a final document ready to be approved by decision makers in June – which would ensure protection of the first international waters in the Arctic.

Join us in our fight for the protection of the Arctic. Sign our declaration, and help showing the OSPAR delegates, that they can make history this week by setting Arctic management on a route towards protection for future generations.     

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Thousands call for #safepassage in Europe

As thousands of people gathered across Europe on Saturday to call for refugee rights, a human chain of hands was formed on a stony Lesbos beach next to a banner demanding ‘No more deaths’.

Safe Passage Demonstration on Lesbos People hold hands on a beach in Molyvos, Lesbos, calling for safe passage and no more deaths. The activity was held in solidarity with other protests across Europe on Saturday February 27 as thousands of people in more than 100 cities marched in support of refugee rights. 27 Feb, 2016 © Giorgos Moutafis / MSF / Greenpeace

Lesbos is on the frontline of Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II and it’s where Greenpeace is working with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders (MSF) to rescue refugees in distress at sea.

Half a million people fleeing war and horror made the dangerous sea crossing to Lesbos last year and that flow of human hope and suffering has continued unabated in 2016. Already this year more than 300 people have died trying to cross the Aegean Sea.

“Europe needs to embrace this crisis and not have the borders closed … We don’t want to see any more bodies washing ashore,” Lesbos resident Dina Adam said, her voice choking up and tears in her eyes. “This has affected us all, the whole community. Let’s hope Europe starts to respect people.”

Safe Passage Demonstration on Lesbos People hold hands on a beach in Molyvos, Lesbos, calling for safe passage and no more deaths. The activity was held in solidarity with other protests across Europe on Saturday February 27 as thousands of people in more than 100 cities marched in support of refugee rights. 27 Feb, 2016 © Giorgos Moutafis / MSF / Greenpeace

Dina was one of several hundred people who gathered on a Molyvos village beach on the north of Lesbos as part of a citizens’ initiative #safepassage protest coordinated by the Sea Scouts of Molyvos.

The Molyvos activity was one of many across Europe and North America on the weekend calling for refugee rights and safe passage. According to the Facebook site promoting the event, rallies were planned in at least 115 cities across 28 countries.

The MSF-Greenpeace crews on Lesbos echoed their show of solidarity, producing a powerful video message using an abandoned refugee dinghy.

Raw HTML.. 

In Brussels, the heart of the European Union, estimates of participants marching through city streets ranged from about 2,000 to 3,000. Staff and volunteers from Greenpeace Belgium were among them.

@MSF_Sea #safepassage twitter

More than 200 people took part in the march in Palma on the Spanish island of Majorca, while across the Atlantic in Canada, a choir sung hymns of peace as a dinghy arrived at a Vancouver beach with a dozen people in life jackets as part of activities there.

“Safe passage means for us we want no more deaths,” said Eleonora Pouwels, a Sea Scout leader addressing protestors at the Molyvos march.

It can’t be any simpler or more urgent than that. 

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Love the Oscars? You’ll love these environmental films too

Rising seas, severe droughts, catastrophic storms, people foraging for food. Sounds like a backdrop for a post-apocalyptic film but this is climate change, and it’s the real-life blockbuster happening right now.

Whether it’s Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, or Greenpeace’s How to Change the World, films have the ability to highlight environmental issues and empower a movement to create change. But it’s not just documentary – climate fiction, or cli-fi is the literary genre that has risen out of our recognition of climate change and the need to do something about it.

Afterall, as first-time Oscar winner and climate activist Leonardo Dicaprio said:

Climate change is real. It is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species. And we need to work collectively together to stop procrastinating.”

So without further ado, here’s a few enviro-flicks you can binge watch with.

A Plastic Ocean (2016)

When surfer, journalist and filmmaker Craig Leeson heard about the amount of plastic in our oceans he was “shocked and horrified”.

“I’d like to think I am environmentally aware and I love the ocean, and here I was using this stuff without a care in the world. I’d been brainwashed into believing that plastic was disposable, as everyone has,” he told the South China Morning Post.

The result is a personal journey of why and how so much trash ends up in our ocean. After all if we don’t clean up our act we could end up having more plastic than fish by 2050.

Behemoth (2015)

Zhao Liang has made some courageous documentaries, like people living with HIV and petitioners in Beijing, but for a long time has wanted to tackle an environmental subject. The result is Behemoth, a haunting 90-minute film with beautiful gothic-like images, backed by a Mongolian soundtrack, and with no dialogue.

Based in Inner Mongolia, the film exposes the environmental and health costs of coal mining – workers suffering from “black lung disease”, rocky coalmines contrasted by rich grasslands, and rapidly urbanised towns that lay empty.

Whilst China might be fast-tracking its way to a renewable energy future and making steps to shut down coal mines, the reality is that many parts of the country and major cities are suffering from the coal industry’s side effects – air pollution, health risks, worker’s rights and compensation – and will continue to do so for many years to come.

Surviving El Nino (2016)

“We should be planting now but there is no water… no rain means no income.”

Severe droughts in the Philippines brought on by El Niño have destroyed many Filipino farmers’ crops. The frequency and intensity of these events are predicted to increase with climate change, resulting in droughts and stronger typhoons.

This short film documents how organic farming can increase farmers’ resilience in dealing with a changing and less predictable climate, as more and more Filipino farmers are finding that adopting ecological farming practices enables them to adapt to the new climate reality.

Tomorrowland (2015)

George Clooney and Britt Robertson star in this American “cli-fi” mystery adventure film about a disillusioned and disgruntled inventor, Frank Walker (Cloney) and a science prodigy, Casey Newton (Robertson). When Casey stumbles across a magical pin, it instantly shows her a world filled with climate doom. She enlists in Frank who also knows of the powers of the pin. Can they save the world from its predicted climate-change future?

Mermaid (2016)

Hong Kong filmmaker is known for making non-sensical comedy-action type films like Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. His latest The Mermaid, is no different but one key point stands out – amongst all the action and over-the-top CGI effects, deep down it’s a film about how humans are destroying the environment…and mermaids, of course.

Since its release, it’s literally made a huge splash, having become China’s highest grossing film. Using real footage of water pollution and dying sea creatures, it leaves the viewer pondering one question.

“Hypothetically, if the world doesn’t have a single drop of clean water or single breath of clean oxygen left, what do you want the most?”

Under the Dome (2015)

Over a year, investigative journalist Chai Jing visited factories, interviewed government officials, spoke to environmental experts and business owners, all while investing her own money and finding out that her as yet unborn daughter had developed a tumour in the womb.

The result? One of the China’s most influential films, viewed over 150 million times!

What is it about? Air pollution.

Shuk-Wah Chung is Content Editor at Greenpeace East Asia. Follow her on Twitter.

Want to see more? Check out some Greenpeace films and videos here.  

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European Photonics Venture Forum

The 2nd edition of the European Photonics Venture Forum (EPVF) will take place on 2 & 3 June 2016 in Eindhoven. It will bring together entrepreneurs, investors, corporates and policy makers in an intense and high-energy programme of pitching, ideas sharing, networking and direction setting. The first edition was initiated by FP7 funded project LightJumps, under coordination of James Cogan. This year the event will be an initiative of FP7 project Actphast and will be organized with the support of high-ranking members of regional, national and European photonics organisations. EPVF is organised in association with the International Photonics Event in Veldhoven on 1&2 June 2016.

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Interview with a polar bear (expert)

This year, celebrate International Polar Bear Day by learning more about this amazing species from a scientist who has studied them for decades.

 Scientist Thor Larsen with a polar bear cub. A happy moment for the polar bear researcher. ©Thor S. Larsen

Thor S. Larsen is a pioneer in polar bear research. He began his academic career in 1965 at the Norwegian Polar Institute. From there, he became a member of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Polar Bear Specialist Group from 1968 to 1985. Working with other scientists in the Specialist Group, he helped initiate the international Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, signed in 1973. 

After visiting the Arctic for over 50 years, he still describes his feelings for the region as a “never-ending love story.”

Larissa Beumer, a Greenpeace Germany Arctic campaigner, spoke with him about his work:


What was it like to study polar bears in 1965?

At that time, we didn’t know anything about polar bears! We didn’t know if all polar bears in the Arctic belonged to the same population or if there were distinct subpopulations, how many there were, or anything about their migration patterns or their population biology – for example, their reproduction or mortality rates.

At the first scientific meeting in Fairbanks, concerns were expressed that polar bears were over-hunted in many areas. But no country was able to provide any reliable data on numbers of polar bears anywhere in the Arctic. The estimates of world population numbers ranged somewhere between 5,000 and 19,000 polar bears, even numbers as high as 25,000 were mentioned. But in reality, all these numbers were just “guestimates” rather than estimates based upon sound scientific data.

So back in 1967, we started the systematic polar bear research in Svalbard: we captured them, marked them with ear tags, took various samples and undertook several surveys trying to count them from ships and airplanes. We also talked to trappers to gather information from them.

The fieldwork back then was very different from today. For 15 years, we only went to Kong Karls Land on skis, without any motorized vehicles. Once, I stayed on Edgeoya for 16 months doing fieldwork only using dog sledges. In 1973 we travelled with the Sirius patrol in Greenland along the East coast to study polar bears there. On all those field trips, we would always stay in very small cabins, only about four to five square meters, and went skiing every day. You were completely by yourself, surrounded by pure wilderness.

Scientists climb an iceberg in the Arctic to study polar bears. ©Thor S. LarsenImage courtesy of Thor S. Larsen

Why did you want to study polar bears?

We knew nothing about them, so it was a real scientific challenge. And I was very fascinated by the Arctic. I had been there to do scientific work on birds. You fall in love when you work with one of the most beautiful and exciting animals on Earth. I was extremely fortunate to be able to do this.

©Thor S. LarsenImage courtesy of Thor S. Larsen

How many polar bears have you seen in your life?

I have seen more than 2,000 bears. Then I stopped counting. But when I see one today, it is as beautiful as it was the very first time.

What was your most memorable encounter with a polar bear?

Oh, I couldn’t tell… But maybe it was the times when we did maternity den surveys on skis. You observe the female with her small cubs leaving the den for the first time after having spent several months without eating, only giving birth and nurturing the newborn cubs. The cubs would start playing and discovering this new world – she looks at you, you look at them… Those moments were magical.

You get very humble when you work in the Arctic for so many years, and you really respect nature.

Polar bear cubs resting after a tiring day. ©Thor S. LarsenImage courtesy of Thor S. Larsen

How did the 1973 IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) agreement work to protect polar bears?

The IUCN created a Polar Bear Specialist Group in 1965. They sent personal invitations to polar bear experts in the Soviet Union, the USA, Canada, Denmark and Norway. I was lucky to be one of them.

The group was small, with only two representatives from each of the five Arctic states and a small secretariat. We decided to have closed sessions – only a Russian-English translator from IUCN’s staff remained in the room. The presentations and discussions were frank and open after the doors had been closed. We challenged each other about research findings and management advice.

The first meeting of the Specialist Group was held in 1968. After that meeting it was clear that there was a need for an international convention or agreement for polar bear conservation, and we pursued this further in the next meetings in 1970 and 1972.

As an international NGO(non-governmental organization), IUCN was not authorized to implement an international agreement. But with the help of our research we could prepare the draft agreement between the five Arctic states.

Five Arctic countries signed the  “Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears” in 1973, and in 1976 it entered into force. The agreement banned the killing of polar bears in general, irrespective of national and international laws. But there were exceptions. One was traditional hunting by indigenous communities that were dependent on it for their livelihood.

To date, it is referred to as a prime example of international cooperation. I am glad that I could contribute to that process and that it came into force before it was too late – before polar populations were at critically low levels because of over-harvest.

What are the biggest threats to polar bears today?

When the agreement was signed in 1973, we thought that polar bears were now protected forever. But today they are facing completely different challenges than hunting.

The sea ice is retreating and thinning, making it increasingly difficult for polar bears to hunt seals. This affects their body conditions. When bears get stranded on land in summer when the sea ice retreats northwards, they can survive without any food for about 6 months, but then their condition is not the best and they have to use their fat reserves. Some of these bears are pregnant females. When the cubs are born around New Year they usually only weigh 500g. When they leave the maternity den in spring, they weigh about 10kg. The females have to raise them to this weight from their own body weight. If they don’t get enough food during the summer months to accumulate sufficient fat to be able to feed their cubs after birth, they might abort or reabsorb the fetus and will thus not produce any offspring in such years. In that way, the retreating ice also affects their reproduction.

The loss of sea ice also has an impact on the maternity denning areas. Popular denning areas for polar bear females are islands such as Wrangel Island in Russia or Hopen and Kong Karls Land in Svalbard. However, if the sea ice extent does not reach to these islands in autumn, the females don’t go there for denning.

When I did research on Kong Karls Land between 1972 and 1985, there were usually about 40-50 maternity dens each spring and the number of dens increased each year. That was a result of the total protection of polar bears in Svalbard. In spring 2009, after a winter with rather normal ice conditions, my colleagues found 25 dens. In autumn 2010, the waters around Kong Karls Land were ice-free. In the following spring, they found only 13 dens. The following autumn, the waters were again ice-free, and only five dens were found in spring 2012. We’re observing the same picture in other areas as well. A friend of mine who works on Wrangel Island told me that in the 1970s, there were usually 300-400 dens each year. In the recent years, they had only about 30-40 dens. If this should become a regular pattern, it means that there is very low recruitment in the populations. And that is a very bad sign.

Another big problem is the heavy trans-boundary pollution with toxic contaminants such as persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals. They accumulate in the food chain, so polar bears are especially vulnerable because they are on top of the food chain. Scientists suspect that this also affects their reproduction, but we don’t have any proof yet. But we know that for example the pollution in Svalbard’s polar bears is very high.

Polar bears on ice. ©Thor S. LarsenImage courtesy of Thor S. Larsen

What is the status of polar bear populations today?

According to information that the Specialist Group published in 2012, many polar bear sub-populations are declining. A few are stable, but for half of the Arctic data are deficient. Only one population is said to be increasing, but the data is from 2000. In general, we need better data to make reliable estimates.

Do you think polar bears will be able to adapt to climate change?

I don’t know. There is lots of debate about how old polar bears are as a species. At the moment, we think they are about 600,000 years old. There were lots of variations in climate in those 600,000 years, including periods where the ice had retreated considerably. So maybe they will be able to adopt their life style, but we can only guess here. It also depends on the speed of changes. And on other negative impacts such as pollution, that stress the populations in addition to climate change.

Pollution and climate change are overarching international problems that we can only solve on the international level. We need to make sure to tackle these problems, but also to keep all other additional negative impacts such as illegal hunting as low as possible. Polar bear cubs and yearlings are particularly sensitive to environmental changes. Therefore, infrastructure developments and transport activities should be prohibited in and around denning areas and there should be regular seasonal den surveys and monitoring of reproduction in the populations.

Polar bears on ice. ©Thor S. LarsenImage courtesy of Thor S. Larsen

Inspired to act for polar bears? Join the fight to save the Arctic today!

Larissa Beumer is an Arctic campaigner with Greenpeace Germany. She interviewed Thor S. Larsen in 2015.

A version of this interview was originally published by Greenpeace Germany.

 

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Adorable Japanese couple devastated by Fukushima turn lives around with solar

Mr and Mrs Okawara hold up a banner for “Solarise FukushimaMr and Mrs Okawara hold up a banner for “Solarise Fukushima”.

For the past 30 years, Shin and Tatsuko Okawara spent their lives working as organic farmers. With their own organic farm, rural work was in their blood – tilling, planting and harvesting crops from the same soil their family worked on for six generations. They sold organic vegetables direct to customers and their service was cherished by the community.

Mr and Mrs Okawara pour so much love into their products that they stick caricatures of themselves on their labels!Mr and Mrs Okawara pour so much love into their products that they stick caricatures of themselves on their labels!

Mr and Mrs Okawara lived about 45km west of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and loved their place but at the same time were also cautious. They had a radiation detector alarm that they bought after feeling worried by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Then on 15 March 2011, four days after the earthquake and tsunami that caused the tragic Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, their detector alarm went off and radiation levels rose. They had no choice but to leave.

The adorable couple in their organic shop in Miharu town.The adorable couple in their organic shop in Miharu town.

Eventually though, they decided to return.

“We have cattle and chickens and we had to come back to feed them. We couldn’t leave them and go elsewhere,” they told us in 2012.

But apart from dealing with the aftermath of such a tragic accident they also had to deal with the future of their farming business  – their customer base fell due to fears of contaminated produce, and they even thought about giving up on farming.

Tatsuko Okawara gets emotional during a speech that she gave in her shop in 2014, as she talks about her experience as a victim of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.Tatsuko Okawara gets emotional during a speech that she gave in her shop in 2014, as she talks about her experience as a victim of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

But instead of letting the nuclear accident shape them, they knew they had to move forward – for themselves, for their community and for their children’s future.

In 2013 they opened up an organic shop, “Esperi” in the agricultural town of Miharu, Fukushima Prefecture. Their intention was to help revitalise the area and create a community space where people could gather and help each other in 2013. After all, the name “Esperi” means “hope” in Esperanto.

But this wasn’t enough. So in October 2015, the couple launched the Solarise Fukushima crowdfunding project to install solar panels on the rooftop of their shop. Their aim? “Hope to spread life with solar energy from Miharu town, Fukushima”.

Before they knew it people around Japan and the rest of the world began contributing to their crowd funding project, and about a month later they achieved their target of around 1.5 mil JPY (about 13,500 US). Messages from crowd funding supporters gave them the encouragement they needed, especially as they felt “forgotten”.

Mr and Mrs Okawara are also enthusiastic performers. Shin plays the guitar and sings…Mr and Mrs Okawara are also enthusiastic performers. Shin plays the guitar and sings…

…whilst Tatsuko is a talented puppeteer. She’s performing "Taro and Hanako", a real-life story based on a couple affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.…whilst Tatsuko is a talented puppeteer. She’s performing “Taro and Hanako”, a real-life story based on a couple affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Greenpeace Japan helped launch the project, and in January 2016 solar panels were installed on the Esperi rooftop.

Mr and Mrs Okagawa and myself help install the first photovoltaic panels…Mr and Mrs Okagawa and myself help install the first photovoltaic panels…

... as workers install the rest.… as workers install the rest.

Meanwhile, kids in the community learn about solar energy.Meanwhile, kids in the community learn about solar energy.

And when it’s finished we’re all happy.And when it’s finished we’re all happy.

Yep, we’re all happy.Yep, we’re all happy.

Especially these two.Especially these two.

Esperi now has a 10kW solar system and will generate 10MWh electricity annually.Esperi now has a 10kW solar system and will generate 10MWh electricity annually.

When the Greenpeace International radiation investigation team first met the couple in April 2011, Mrs Okawara said:

“Fukushima people are a bit naive. For a long time, we did not have money, and just accepted the plan of nuclear power plants. But for the future of our children it would be a shame if we didn’t continue organic farming and take drastic action.”

In 2012 Fukushima Prefecture pledged to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2040. But the policies that the Japanese government are currently promoting is heading in the opposite direction.

In order to achieve a sustainable, reliable and affordable electricity system, the Japanese government urgently needs to change course and streamline its actions. It needs to put the interests of people before those of the utilities and stop wasting efforts on restarting nuclear plants, stop investments in coal power plants that lock in climate destruction, and an set ambitious renewable energy target.

For many people in Fukushima, their biggest wish is for a life without nuclear energy and a future powered by clean, safe renewable energy. Esperi is a tangible testament to the community’s future – it’s our hope.

Ai Kashiwagi is an energy campaigner at Greenpeace Japan.

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We climbed the “Oriental Alps” and did it in PFC-free gear

The majestic Four Sisters Mountains, in Sichuan Province, Mainland China.The majestic Four Sisters Mountains, in Sichuan Province, Mainland China.

On January 19, a rare meteorological event allowed a record cold current from the Arctic to slide south into Mainland China. As the frigid polar air kept many residents indoors, a trio of seasoned mountaineers assembled at a guesthouse in Changping Valley, part of the Four Sisters Mountain scenic area, about 3800 meters above sea level.

We were Icey Tsui from Taiwan, A.M. from Hong Kong, and Deng Lin from Mainland China; and together we were embarking on an adventure to climb the Four Sisters Mountain, reputed as the “Oriental Alps” in Sichuan Province.

Icey Tsui, A.M. and Deng Lin who climbed the summit of Da Feng peak of the Four Sister Mountains (5025m) in Sichuan Province, Mainland China. (From L-R) Icey Tsui, A.M. and Deng Lin who tackled the summit of Da Feng peak of the Four Sister Mountains (5025m) in Sichuan Province, Mainland China.

The next day after a full night’s sleep, we left the comfort of our guesthouse to take on the 5025-meter Da Feng peak of Four Sisters Mountain.

We paused briefly when the mountain came into view; the clear skies and morning light provided a golden radiance. As we trekked across the plain, the horizon widened, and we approached the outskirts of a Tibetan region within Sichuan. Yaks and horses occasionally strolled across our path as they traversed the plateau.

Nothing hinted at the challenges that lay ahead.

Hiking to the summit of Da Feng peakHiking to the summit of Da Feng peak

 On January 21, we set off at 3a.m. Our lights blazed a trail across the snowy landscape. We climbed non-stop against an unrelenting icy snowstorm that pounded against our progress. Each step soon became weaker than the last from the constant gusts of wind, as soreness and fatigue set in to our muscles and joints.

When we finally reached the snow-covered platform beneath the summit, the sun had only just begun to break. The darkness was limiting our sight; the heavy snowfall obscured the beauty of Yaomei Feng, the highest peak of the Four Sisters, and hid the clear view of the surrounding mountain tops we had enjoyed the day before.

The summit of Da Feng peakThe summit of Da Feng peak

We managed to make the summit in less than four hours, which we considered fast under such adverse conditions. Then we began the long trek back to our camp.

The climbers spent 4 days on the mountain and reached the summit of Da Feng peak, under -20 degree celsius conditions and in PFC free clothes.

We soon found the return trip would be more time-consuming than we had anticipated. The snow got heavier and quickly piled up, covering the whole mountain and slowing our descent to a crawl.

As we continued, the Arctic Oscillation brought mounds of snowfall to the lowlands around the Dujiangyan irrigation system, a UNESCO site based at the junction between the Sichuan basin and the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. According to local news, the mountains surrounding Taipei also received snow, and sporadic sleet was recorded across the lowlands.

Despite the strong cold current that had dropped to -20 °C during our climb, we successfully accomplished our mission in clothes which were free from hazardous PFC (per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals), proving that PFC-free clothes can withstand the challenges of extreme cold weather at 5000 meters.

PFC-free and G=going strong at -20°C PFC-free and going strong at -20°C 

 There are many explanations for the extreme weather patterns we experienced. Outdoor lovers are still in search for a way to co-exist with the nature while attempting to limit the harm our activities bring to the environment. For our expedition to Da Feng peak, appreciating the beauty of nature in an eco-friendly way was the least we could do.

It is a never-changing trend to eliminate hazardous PFCs from our outdoor gear. Now that PFCs have been discovered to be harmful to the environment and human health, outdoor brands should take the responsibility of putting a stop to their use and helping to restore nature to its clean state.

We have been encouraged by other outdoor lovers who are taking strong actions to demonstrate that clothing free of PFCs, can meet the demands of world-class high mountains. Members of our community want to prove to outdoor brands that they are determined to Detox and won’t accept anything less from them.

Now that PFCs have been discovered to be harmful to the environment and human health, outdoor brands should take the responsibility of putting a stop to their use and helping to restore nature to its clean state.

With this expedition, we wanted to send a message from Four Sisters Mountain to all the corners of the world asking, “What is your dream?” For us, it is to be PFC-free! That’s a dream shared by Greenpeace and the wider community of outdoor lovers.

The expedition team

Icey Tsui from TaiwanIcey Tsui is a well-known mountaineer from Taiwan, with over 18 years of mountain-climbing experience and a specialization in mid-level mountain exploration (1500-3000 meters) and high mountain climbing (3000 meters and above).

A.M. from Hong KongA.M. from Hong Kong, is a rising star in the world of mountain climbing and the creator of the Facebook page–Yamanaka Yuko–which promotes nature, photography, design and art. 

 

Deng Lin (AKA Zidiyiyang), from Mainland China, has a specialization in ice climbing and ski mountaineering.

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Cree Announces Outstanding R&D LED Efficacy Combined with Superior Color Quality

Cree, Inc. records another LED industry first with the demonstration of a single high-power LED delivering nearly 1,600 lumens at 134 lumens-per-watt (LPW) with similar color quality as an incandescent light bulb. With this result, Cree achieved a breakthrough 25 percent increase in lumens per watt (LPW) over production LEDs of similar color quality under operating conditions found in real-world LED lighting applications. This important milestone coupled with Cree’s latest SC5 Technology™ platform will lead to LED systems with increased performance, lower cost and better light.

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Iceland’s fin whale hunt cancelled for 2016

No endangered fin whales will be hunted in Iceland this year.

Greenpeace activists protest against the transport of fin whale meat transiting through the port of Hamburg. The 336 meter long cargo ship freighter "Cosco Pride" (Seaspan Corp.) is carrying the whale meat from Iceland to Japan.  5 Jul, 2013 © Joerg Modrow / Greenpeace

This is great news. Word today from colleagues in Iceland, and now reports in both Icelandic and English-language media confirm that the planned hunt for fin whales will not happen this summer. The man behind that whaling is claiming that he’s stopping because of ‘hindrances’ in exporting the meat. That’s great news for whales, and everyone who has been opposing this needless, senseless hunt.

Fin whales are amazing. The second largest animal on our planet growing up to 27 metres in length (that’s about two and a half double-decker buses) and are found all over the globe. They’re nicknamed the ‘greyhounds of the sea’, because they are sleek, streamlined swimming machines. They are listed as internationally endangered, largely because these massive whales were some of the first targets of the harpoons of factory whaling in the 20th century, and their populations were virtually wiped out in many areas.

A fin whale is pictured in the Ligurian Sea, Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals, 20 miles off the north coast of Corsica. 11 Aug, 2008  © Greenpeace / Paul Hilton

Over the past few years Iceland has defied international opinion and public outcry and allowed one man, Kristian Loftsson, to restart a fin whale hunt. This hunt of an internationally endangered species is quite impossible to defend. It makes no environmental, economic, or social sense to Iceland. There is no market for the meat in Iceland, the blubber (and often more) is discarded as being ‘unfit for human consumption’, and the tentative trade to Japan makes no sense – not least since they too have stockpiles of unwanted whale meat, and are concerned about toxic pollution.

Greenpeace activists in Europe have played a crucial role in highlighting and blockading some of these illicit shipments, blocking ports in the Netherlands and Germany, and challenging shipments through Canada, exposing desperate shipment through the Arctic, and mobilising massive public support to block whale meat trade via South Africa. And let’s not forget there is no economic rationale for these hunts and this trade, and fin whales are supposed to be protected species internationally. As well as that, whales and other marine life in the North Atlantic have been shown to suffer particularly badly from toxins. That’s why people are advised to avoid eating whale blubber, or too many portions of fatty fish, and recent studies suggest some populations of whales in the North Atlantic might ultimately go extinct as a result of pollution alone.

Over recent decades tourism has become a much more significant economic activity in Iceland than whaling could ever be, and the growth of whale-watching has been one of the greatest success stories of all. Iceland is now a destination synonymous with scenery and wildlife, which has increasingly brought the tourist industry into conflict with Loftsson’s ego-driven hunt.

There’s simply no place today for commercial whaling, and the world’s remaining whales, dolphins and porpoises face a whole host of threats from us humans that we collectively aren’t tackling – from climate change, to pollution and industrial fishing. Stopping the senseless charade of commercial whaling for good needs to happen so we can get on with the other stuff.

So when Loftsson says he is stopping because of ‘hindrances’, it sounds like a very diplomatic version of the truth to save face. But let’s hope that the cancelling of this year’s hunt is the end of this indefensible outrage for good.

That would be even better news for the whales, for Iceland and for the oceans.

Willie Mackenzie is a part of Greenpeace UK’s biodiversity team. 

This blog was originally posted by Greenpeace UK.

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