Reasons to be cheerful

virunga national parkUnlike most people working on environmental issues, I spend most of my time finding and telling good news stories. When not editing the Green Alliance blog, I work on earthrise, an environmental TV show on Al Jazeera English that features promising solutions to environmental problems.

While I think we need to be realistic about the scale of the challenge, evidence suggests that there’s no quicker way to turn off your audience (whether they’re sitting on a sofa or in parliament) than being a full time purveyor of bad news.

So to lighten up your Friday afternoon, I thought I’d give you three reasons to be cheerful, gleaned from my experiences on earthrise.

1. Green businesses – and technologies – are making headway
In southern Spain, Bio Fuel Systems is creating carbon negative crude oil by growing algae in huge tubes, fed with carbon dioxide piped in from a neighbouring cement factory. It’s yet to reach commercial scale, but the company claims it can produce up to 400 times more oil per hectare than traditional biofuels such as palm oil. Elsewhere in southern Spain the Gemasolar concentrated solar power plant generates electricity 24/7, thanks to two central tanks of molten salt that store heat generated throughout the day.

Here in the UK, Welsh dairy farmer Wyn Evans is powering up to 50 per cent of his farm using the wind, the sun…and cow manure. And on the south coast of Australia, a small company called Sundrop Farms has created the first commercial greenhouse to use solar power to desalinate seawater for irrigation, with high yields and a second eight hectare greenhouse in the works.

2. There are a lot of incredibly inspiring, dedicated people out there working for change. From Edith Floyd, a grandmother turned urban farming pioneer in Detroit, USA, who’s gradually planting up her entire deserted street, to her neighbour Carolyn Leadley, who bucked the demographic trend by moving her young family into the city to grow and sell vegetables for a post-cheap oil era.

In the UK Agamemnon Otero is battling bureaucracy to create the beginnings of a huge network of decentralized, community owned solar power stations on the roofs of South London’s social housing. And in New Orleans Richie Blink is pioneering the rebuilding of mangrove and wetlands, but says “everyone round here is either a fisherman or works in an oil field, I would never want these people to think I’m an environmentalist.”

Across the Atlantic in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the rangers of Virunga National Park risk their lives daily to protect gorillas from armed poachers, and raise orphaned animals.

3. On a small scale at least, incentives are being re-aligned.
Access Energy, a Kenyan social enterprise, has developed a micro wind turbine made from scrap metal, which is leased to customers, who earn a living selling a cheaper, cleaner source of power to their neighbours.

An Irish firm is making money turning end-of-life plastics into fuel and, in Gloucestershire, fishermen and conservationists are working together to ensure the long term survival of the eel fishing industry, paying fishermen to catch and conserve endangered European eels.

Over in California, organic wine is flourishing while, in the Philippines, a business selling nets made from coconut fibres, designed to prevent soil erosion, is now producing 30,000 sq metres of netting a month and exporting it around the world.

There are many more examples I could go into, and while some of these projects have faced difficulties and setbacks, I’ve been incredibly inspired by the stories I’ve worked on.

What’s particularly captured my imagination is the vision and strength of spirit of some of the people behind these ventures, like farmer Wyn Evans: “Back in 1999 our first grandchildren came along,” he says, “and I don’t want their grandchildren saying ‘your grandfather knew what was happening with climate change’. I don’t want them to think – well what did he do?”

Photo: Head caretaker Andre Bauma with an orphaned gorilla at Virunga National Park, by Orlando von Einsiedel

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