2021 Survey of Sustainability in Education Abroad

2021 Survey of Sustainability in Education Abroad

Bound International, in partnership with Earth Deeds, is excited to present the first-ever Survey of Sustainability in Education Abroad! This survey is designed to provide vital insights into how the field of education abroad is evolving and how it can address climate change and other environmental and social crises.

The 22 questions within the survey pertain to Office Management, Program Design and Operations, Student Learning and Barriers. We suggest that survey respondents be coordinators or administrators who have knowledge about all of these aspects. The survey should only take 15-20 minutes to complete.

Aggregate results will be made public by the end of the calendar year. The deadline to complete the survey is midnight EST on October 5th. Please share this post with colleagues and/or click on the link below to get started.


Please take a few minutes to advance our understanding and evolution in the field of education abroad! Thank you!

New Earth-Bound Partnership!

We’re excited to announce a new partnership between Earth Deeds and Bound International, a small startup navigating the intersection of international educational mobility, environmental sustainability, and technological innovation.

Together, this Earth-Bound partnership will advocate for sustainability within the field of international education. In particular, we will provide services for colleges and universities to onset their unavoidable carbon emissions through a custom pricing mechanism that offers pedagogical value to students and valuable support to local solutions to global warming.

Empowering Women is a Key Solution to Global Warming

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to check out Project Drawdown, which purports to “map, measure, model, and describe the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming.”  I am waiting to review the book, but the website is quite comprehensive and will become even more so on May 1 when technical summaries for each solution are made available.

Led by Paul Hawken, Project Drawdown is the culmination of a multi-year effort by scholars and scientists across the globe to evaluate which global warming solutions are currently available and economically viable, have a large potential to reduce GHGs with minimal negative impacts, and can be scaled globally.

Surprisingly (because we don’t hear much about it), the largest proposed intervention is to phase out HFCs as refrigerant coolants.  While HFCs do not harm the ozone layer (as opposed to the CFCs they replaced), they have 1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere.  Replacing HFCs with propane or ammonium is estimated to reduce a whopping 89.74 Gigatons of CO2 by 2050.  Other top-five solutions include Onshore Wind Turbines (84.6 GT), Reduced Food Waste (70.53 GT), Plant-Rich Diets (66.11 GT), and Tropical Forest Restoration (61.23 GT).

What really excites me, however, are solutions #6 and #7: Educating Girls and Family Planning, which have combined potential emissions reductions of 129.2 GT of CO2 by 2050.  It is clear that educated women with access to family planning are more empowered and have fewer and healthier children.  Globally, this could result in humanity’s population peaking with one billion fewer people, which would have massive implications for our climate.

What’s even cooler about these solutions is that they are thinking systemically and outside the box of carbon offsets.  Of course it is vital that we reduce CO2 emissions as quickly and as fully as humanly possible.  No one argues with that (at least no one that believes in science). What I’m saying is that reducing CO2 is a necessary, but not sufficient response to global warming.

We also need to do so much more! We need to create local and resilient food systems.We need to preserve biodiversity and wildness. We need to fight for climate justice and for those unfairly burdened by the consequences of global warming. And we need to deconstruct and replace the economic and political systems, and even the mindsets and worldviews that got us into this situation in the first place.

Even if humans completely stopped emitting CO2 today there is still enough already in our atmosphere to cause massive sea level rise, increased disease rates and extreme weather events, declining agriculture, and much more. In addition to reducing emissions, it is equally vital that we focus on resilience in the race of certain changes and educating girl and women and providing access to family planning are some of the best ways to do that.

These solutions also demonstrate the limitations of carbon offsetting.  Nobody will ever be able to sell credits on the Voluntary Carbon Market for CO2 reductions associated with educating women and family planning.  The impacts are not discrete and impossible to measure except, perhaps, on the global population level and, even there, I suspect Hawken et al. are using  a lot of unproven assumptions.

In addition to challenges with efficiency, leakage, and additionally, offsetting constrains us to supporting only projects that are measurably mitigating emissions.  This is why Earth Deeds has developed an alternative method called “onsetting”, which drops the concept of carbon neutrality, prices carbon based on the Social Cost of Carbon, and allows funding (or time!) to go to local projects that are building resiliency — such as educating women!

Project Drawdown lays out a road map for how humanity can dramatically reduce global GHG emissions by 2050.  It also encourages us to think beyond emissions and to consider what got into this mess and what systemic solutions will build resiliency and healthy communities in a climate changed world.


Trump’s Executive Order and the Social Cost of Carbon


The pen was certainly mightier than the sword on March 28 when Trump signed an Executive Order to cut the heart out of Obama’s climate legacy.  In addition to eviscerating emissions rules for power plants and lifting limits on methane leaks and federal coal leasing, it also hopes to unravel the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC), which University of Chicago economics professor, Michael Greenstone calls “the most important number you’ve never heard of.”

The SCC is a scientific estimate of the anticipated costs of a wide variety of climate change impacts such as coastal erosion, declining agriculture, increased disease rates, etc.  It boils down a vast amount of scientific and economic research into one number that best represents the future costs of emitting CO2 now.  Today, that number is $45/mT CO2, but it will rise each year due to the fact that delays in responding will likely lead to more severe damages.

In 2009, the Obama Administration created a nonpartisan Interagency Working Group (IWG) including the EPA, DOE and ten other agencies to develop and maintain the SCC. Since then the SCC has been important in the development of over 100 regulations such as vehicle fuel efficiency, pollution from coal-fired power plants, and energy efficiency standards for home appliances.

Although Trump’s EO claims that agencies will continue to use “the best available science and economics”, it is actually a huge step backwards. It will disband the IWG, limiting future updates to the SCC, and it directs agencies to comply with OMB’s 2003 guidance on regulatory impact analysis — back when not much attention was given to carbon emissions.

There are two other ways this administration might try to lower the SCC and, consequently, the value we place on the health of future generations and our environment. First it can change what is called the “discount rate”, which is kind of like a reverse interest rate.  The higher the discount rate, the lower the value we place on the future.  The SCC currently offers a range of discount rates, from 2.5% to 5%, and generally uses a “central” rate of 3%.  Trump’s EO proposes a rate of 7%, which assumes staggering economic growth in coming years.  This is basically saying “Screw the future!”, especially since climate change is making it less and less likely the economy will continue to grow at current rates.

The second tweak involves the geographic extent of the calculation.  While the SCC currently takes into account global costs and benefits to CO2 emissions (because climate change is a global problem!), it is likely that this scope will be narrowed to just the U.S., which would fit well with Trump’s “America first” nationalistic rhetoric.  This would result in further isolation from the global community of climate scientists and further delay in any real U.S. response to global warming.

According to the Rhodium Group, if Trump’s EO were fully implemented, not only would we miss the Paris commitment of reducing CO2 emissions 16-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 (which we would also likely miss even under Obama’s Climate Action Plan), we would also miss the Copenhagen Accord commitment of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.  And, of course, neither of these commitments are even close to what is considered necessary to prevent global warming from shooting past the 2°C threshold that scientists fear will risk even greater catastrophes.

If there is a silver lining to any of this it is that Trump will not be able to eliminate the SCC completely and there will be massive legal resistance to any attempt to roll back EPA climate regulations.  In 2007, the SCOTUS ruled that greenhouse gases qualify as a pollutant that can be regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act and in 2009 the EPA announced that CO2 poses real harm to the public.  Abandoning basic climate science will be met with increasing litigation and mobilization, such as the massive climate march planned on April 29th.

Earth Deeds will continue to rely on the SCC determined by Obama’s IWG and we hope it will continue to evolve with the best scientific data available.  More than ever, we can’t wait for government to fix things and need to work together to create a healthy world for future generations and all life.

Earth Deeds Earth Day Update

Dear Earth Deeds Supporters,

Happy Earth Day!  Today, may we renew our commitment to live in harmony with each other and our planet!  Earth Deeds is proud to help users meaningfully account for their unavoidable impacts and support local solutions to global warming.

If you would like to pay forward your carbon footprint — say from the “Earth Month” of April, the year-to-date, or a recent vacation — and support some really cool projects, please check out C3’s Boulder Earth Week Team to measure your emissions and support an organization working for a more sustainable Boulder and a healthy planet!

In other news…

Individual Onsetting: You can now onset your individual emissions from our home page.  Just click “Onset Now” in the menu or the “Onset” button in the middle of the page to be taken to a calculator where you can measure emissions (from your daily commute, flights, etc.) and choose among five projects to support (with more coming!).  Contact us if you would like to track your emissions over time.

Coming Web Updates:  We have a lot of changes in the pipeline including a new Search Page, which will allow users to filter projects within 18 categories, a new calculator, and the ability to contribute time in lieu of money to account for one’s emissions.  Stay tuned!

Team Spotlight – AASHE: We are excited that the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) will invite over 2,000 conference attendees to onset their travel and support Civic Works Baltimore Center for Green Careers.  Feel free to contribute to them as well!

Blog Spotlight: It is clear we need to move beyond “changing lightbulbs” and start changing the systems and policies that created global warming in the first place.  To learn more, check out Clara Fang’s blog post on how higher education can be stronger advocates for climate action.

Enjoy the warmer weather everyone, but let’s keep it livable by supporting sustainability and resiliency projects in communities that matter to us!

In community,
– Daniel

Project and Team Spotlights, AASHE recap, Donating Time, and more…

Happy Solstice and and may your holidays be bright! if you are wondering how you can have a more eco-friendly and less stressful season, read these tips on greening the holidays. And, if you’d like to make a year-end contribution to help Earth Deeds support local solutions to global warming (nudge, nudge ;-), you can do so here. Thanks!
It was an exciting recently to follow the COP21 meetings, which resulted in the adoption of an historic international Paris Agreement, George Monbiot summed up the conference nicely when he said, “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle; by comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.”
While governments are reaching new collaborations on climate change, it is more important than ever that citizens act collectively to find solutions both at home and at the societal level. As Bill McKibben has stated, we are “past the point where we’re going to manage to do it one light bulb at a time.” What can you do as an individual to make the most meaningful impact? Please read Clara Fang’s compelling blog post to find out.

And here’s what we’ve been up to lately at Earth Deeds.

Daniel and Clara attended the 10th anniversary Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference in Minneapolis from Oct. 26-27. In addition to meeting with many sustainability directors interested in Earth Deeds, we are excited to join a Working Group to explore how ACUPCC signatory schools can go beyond offsetting in accounting for their carbon emissions. Sounds like a job for Earth Deeds!

Donating Time
At AASHE, we heard from schools interested in working with Earth Deeds in ways that engage students bodies rather than their wallets. So, we will soon allow users to contribute TIME (through volunteering for a organization or project) rather than money to account for their carbon emissions! We’re using a hoped-for minimum wage of $15/hr to account for one’s emissions so 1 mT of CO2 would equal $40 or 2.67 hrs.  Stay tuned as we’re excited to see where this goes!

Team Spotlight – Individual Onsetting
So far, Earth Deeds has focused on allowing “Teams” to measure and account for their collective emissions.  Now we are creating the ability for individuals to onset their emissions and contribute to a range of organizations. We currently have 10 organizations set up for “parallel” or “split” payments on Paypal (including 350.org) and expect to add many more over time.  Check it out here!

Project Spotlight – Fundacion En Via
Pacific Lutheran University is using Earth Deeds to support En Via, a non-profit organization located in Oaxaca, Mexico. Their microloan program gives women the opportunity to create or expand small businesses; their educational programs help women with their businesses, personal finances, and use of loans; and their ecotourism model directs funds into communities, while connecting people to the ideas, strength and power of women working hard to improve their future.

Happy holidays everyone and have a very blessed new year!


Earth Deeds Update 9/24/15

Happy Fall Equinox! At this time of great change, I am heartened that Pope Francis will call for climate action from political leaders in his Rally in Washington DC on Thursday. Let’s join the Week of Moral Action for Climate Justice by donating, signing the petition, or sharing their page.

Lots of change is happening with Earth Deeds as well!  Jeff Mazur, our part-time CFO, moved to Amherst around the same time my family and I moved to Kingston, Ontario.  I was also at Findhorn in July where I had the honor of being elected President of the Global Ecovillage Network so I have lots to juggle these days.  Here are some past and upcoming highlights at Earth Deeds:

PROJECT Spotlight: Sandele Foundation, Gambia

In March, I had the privilege of helping teach on an Ecovillage Design Education course at the Sandele Eco-Retreat and Learning Center in the Gambia.  In addition to working with local villagers to develop an ecotourism plan for 20 miles of coastline we are excited to use Earth Deeds to enable ecotourists to support local solutions to global warming.  Sandele was also recently announced as a Semi- Finalist for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge!  Let’s hope they win!

TEAM Spotlight: Intercultura

Students travel from all over the world to study Spanish at the Intercultura Language School in Costa Rica. Now they can onset their travel and give back to their host community by supporting La Asociacion CREAR, which offers environmental education programs for local community members. Check out this short video that students watch in their orientations and let others know about this opportunity. Thanks!

Journal Article 

Earth Deeds’ part-time Communications Manager, Clara Fang, and I co-authored an article entitled The Myth of Climate Neutrality: Carbon Onsetting as an Alternative to Carbon Offsetting that was published in the April, 2015 issue of Sustainability: The Journal of Record.  The article explores the controversy of carbon offsetting and proposes onsetting an alternative system that enables institutions to measure, reduce, and price their emissions and support campus and community-based sustainability projects.  Let me know if you’d like me to send you a PDF of the article.

Website Upgrades  

“Parallel payments” are now working on our site so we can set up Projects to directly receive contributions rather than us needing to collect and disburse funds.  Yay!  And our calculator now offers equivalencies of users’ carbon emissions to help them understand their real-world impacts.  For example, a round-trip flight from New York to New Orleans emits ~1 tonne of CO2, which is approximately equivalent to watching ~11,000 hours of TV or the annual emissions of someone living in El Salvador!

I will be speaking about onsetting at the Association for Advancing Sustainability in Higher Education conference on October 27th.  They have expressed interest in onsetting the entire event in 2016, which would engage over 2,000 sustainability professionals to work with Earth Deeds.

Tip Section: Conserve Water

Okay, who remembers the Star Trek – Next Generation scene where an alien describes humans as bags of mostly water?  It’s true!  Our bodies contain over 90% water, which is a strong hint that it is a precious resource we should not squander.  Repairing a leaky toilet can save 200 gallons of water per day! Running your dishwasher with only full loads can save 100 pounds of carbon dioxide and $40 per year. Let’s conserve and protect our water resources both for our own health and the health of our planet!


Take care everyone and please feel free to contact us if you have any thoughts or questions!

127 Months (to transition)

(Spoiler alert!  If you haven’t seen 127 Hours and don’t want to know how it ends – as if? – don’t read this.)

“We are in between stories” observed Thomas Berry in 1978.  Our old Cartesian, reductionist, industrial stories are clearly dysfunctional and destructive, but new ones like those being developed by ecovillages, transition towns and millions of other initiatives and innovators around the world, have not yet gone mainstream.

It is happening, but not always in straightforward ways.  I believe new stories and metaphors are bubbling up through our collective unconscious to help us understand and cope with the coming crises of peak oil and climate change.

One example is the movie 127 Hours, which chronicles the true story of mountain climber, Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) and his incredible efforts to save himself after his arm was pinned by an 800 pound rock while canyoneering.

In many ways, Aron’s story perfectly parallels where we are as a species.  We have become cocky and careless and have forgotten simple tools that have helped in past emergencies.   We’ve fallen from on high and are now truly “caught between a rock and a hard place.”

And like Aron, it’s taking us a while to fully grasp the severity of our predicament.  Our water (i.e. oil) is running out, but there’s still some left, so we think maybe it’s not so bad. But we’re so thirsty!  And, oh shit!  We just spilled some!  This can’t be happening!  Okay, don’t panic.  It’s a big problem, but we’re smart!  We’re strong!  By brains or brawn, we can come through unscathed.… Right?

Wrong.  In the end, it’s too little, too late.  Like Aron muses, our whole life, all of our actions over thousands of generations have led to this moment… to this decision that is almost too horrific to even comprehend.

The thought seems insane!  Cut off our what?!  But this is part of who we are!  We would die!  And the pain!  The pain would be just too much….  No, it’s better to just wait.  Maybe someone will come along to save us.  Maybe if we just keep chipping away at the problem, we’ll be able to pull out of the situation.

It all comes down to this moment.  This generation.  Instead of 127 hours, we have maybe 127 months – around 10 years – to make the ultimate decision.  Are we willing to cut off our lifeblood of oil; break the very bones of our economy; go through some intense pain … in order to survive as a species?  Or will we wait it out and die as cowards?

Our story can still have a happy ending.  Aron Ralston not only survived.  He was transformed.  He healed.  He became a father.  Now, he’s climbing new mountains and inspires others to accept change and take control of their lives.  If we accept our destiny and collectively take this hero’s journey, we will renew the world and our role in it.  Distant generations will sing our praises. This is our mythic moment folks!  Let’s get crackin’!

Web Development Lead Position Available

Job Title: Web Development Lead

Job Description: The Web Development Lead’s role is to assure the successful execution of the Earth Deeds vision and mission through development and deployment of the company’s web presence. This role currently manages one overseas programmer and reports to the company founder. Primary responsibilities include planning, prioritizing and managing web development projects to provide value and ease of use for our customers.

Organization Description:  Earth Deeds online tools enable groups to onset their carbon footprints and support local, meaningful solutions to global warming. Founded in 2012 as an L3C (Low-Profit Limited Liability Company), Earth Deeds currently has a working website and paying customers, but is still early in its development.  Staff are dispersed and include a full-time Founder who manages Sales, Marketing, Web, and Organizational Development, two part-time sales staff, a part-time CFO, and a full-time programmer.  This committed team is creating an innovative organization that has great potential to mobilize millions of people and dollars to support local solutions to global warming.

Time Requirements: 10-40 hours per week. This is a work from home position.

Compensation: Equity and/or deferred compensation until significant revenue and/or investment.


  • Daily direct collaboration with overseas programmer to:
    • Identify and fix bugs within the system.
    • Plan the next generation of the back-end and front-end website experience
  • Identify opportunities and risks for delivering the company’s services (e.g. technologies, competitive services, opportunities for innovation, assessment of market/ technical hurdles).
  • Develop use cases and overall user experience design and flow.
  • Develop specifications and wireframes for review and implementation.
  • Establish a specification conformance, testing, and web analytics regimen.
  • Manage vendors and programmers to implement approved designs.
  • Monitor application performance and review any application failures.
  • Establish and maintain process to respond to customer issues and improve services.
  • Ensure technical problems are resolved in a timely and cost-effective manner.
  • Maintain up-to-date knowledge of standards, trends, and emerging technologies.
  • Ensure compliance with laws and regulations for privacy, security, & social responsibility.

Ideal Background and Qualities:

  • Alignment with Earth Deeds’ Cultural Values.
  • Experience with startup companies and social entrepreneurism.
  • Self-motivated and directed; ability to set and manage priorities judiciously.
  • Ability to articulate ideas to both technical and non-technical audiences.
  • Keen attention to detail and superior analytical, evaluative, and problem-solving abilities.
  • Demonstrated ability to envision and implement web-based services.
  • Graphic design web experience and knowledge of web standards.
  • Skill with CSS, XHTML, one or more Javascript frameworks, and AJAX, a plus.
  • Familiarity with information security vulnerabilities and risk management.
  • Familiarity with consumer privacy and payments industry compliance requirements.
  • University degree in computer science, business administration, or other relevant discipline.
  • On-call availability.

Contact us to talk further about this position.

How Ronald Reagan Ruined the Middle Class and the Environment

Luann Prokop was 53 years old when she was laid off from her job as an accountant at a manufacturing company in Pottsville, Pennsylvania after it was taken over and restructured by a multinational corporation in 2009. After depleting her unemployment benefits, savings, and retirement accounts to pay her mortgage and feed her two teenage children, she still could not find a job. “I had a good, solid background and fabulous references,” she said, “but I got rejected from jobs I applied for over and over again. It was a difficult, dark period.” She started using the local food pantry so that her family could still have meals. Eventually she took an accounting job at the center that housed the pantry, making $20,000 per year when a few years earlier she had earned $60,000. She could get food stamps, but she was not able to qualify for other government benefits, and she worried that she would not be able to pay for heating during the upcoming winter.[1]

Stories like Luann’s are common in America today where globalization and growing income inequality have hollowed out the middle class. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 15.1 percent of Americans lived below the federally defined poverty line by the end of 2010. Thirty four percent of single mothers and their children were in poverty, up from 28.5 percent in 2000.[2]

The rise of poverty and the decline of environmental protections are two correlating trends that are infrequently spoken of together. They are usually seen as unrelated, sometimes competing issues. Economic growth, even when it helps billions have better lives, is generally seen as bad for the environment. For social justice advocates, worrying about climate change and biodiversity are luxuries for people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. By some accounts, poverty is even said to be good for sustainability. As billions of people in the developing world gain access to a middle class lifestyle, carbon emissions, meat consumption, and pollution have all skyrocketed.

However, the history of the United States in the last century shows that the middle class and environmental protection flourished during the era of progressive government after World War II and deteriorated in the period of conservative backlash that followed. Beginning in 1950, a wave of progressive reform created programs that benefited the middle class such as social security, Medicare, low interest home loans and public higher education. The American Dream became reality for a generation of Americans as huge portions of the population received higher education, bought homes, and could retire in financial security, funded in part by taxes as high as 90 percent for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.[3] Wide sweeping environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act were passed by Republican presidents in response to the industrial excesses of the previous generation. The first Earth Day was instituted in 1970, and laws banning the use of DDT and ozone destroying chemicals were passed. Feminism and the Civil Rights movement also toppled conservative values in politics and culture. These changes protected the environment, reduced income inequality, and raised standards of living for all.

By 1980, a conservative backlash took hold in think tanks and drawing rooms across the country. Neoliberalism, an ideology defined by belief in the virtues of an unregulated free market motivated only by profit, came to dominate conservative thinking. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 cemented neoliberalism in the nation’s highest office of power. The Reagan administration instituted huge tax cuts to the rich and corporate deregulation. It promoted a “trickle-down” economics that made sure that economic growth disproportionately benefitted the wealthiest of Americans. Income inequality soared. The median annual wage in America fell from $33,000 to $26,364 a year from 1973 to 2010, a 20 percent decline[4] while the wealthiest one percent of Americans saw their incomes increase by 275 percent between 1979 and 2008.[5] Historians are saying that income inequality today is as high as it was during America’s Guilded Age, when industrial capitalists built huge mansions in Newport, Rhode Island while millions lived in the slums of New York City.[6]


During this same period, environmental protections in the United States suffered a similar decline. Only three federal environmental statutes were passed after 1980 as compared to thirteen in the two decades prior. Greenhouse gas emissions continued unabated despite decades of warnings from scientists of the dire consequences of climate change. Between 1990 and 2013, total US greenhouse gas emissions increased by 7 percent, despite massive outsourcing of the manufacturing sector.[7] Twenty five years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which dumped 10 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, there has been at least two dozen major oil spills in the United States, the largest of which was the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion of March 2010, which killed 11 people and dumped more than 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.[8]

Political support for fracking has ushered a whole new age of environmental deregulation in the United States. Since 2005, fracking has been exempted from parts of the Safe Drinking water Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act in a set of policies known as the “Halliburton loophole.” Existing standards only apply to drilling on leased federal land and land owned by American Indian tribes, which account for less than a quarter of the country’s oil production and 17 percent of natural gas.[9] Fracking has enabled industry to siphon a huge supply of fresh water from our commons. Nationally, nearly 92 billion gallons of water were used for fracking between January 2011 and February 2013.[10]

Funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, probably the clearest indicator of the federal government’s commitment to environmental regulation, is a fraction of what it was at its peak in the 1970s despite huge growth in the number of industries needing to be regulated. The FY2015 EPA budget is nearly 30 percent below what it was in FY2010 and its staffing level is the lowest the department has seen in 25 years[11]. The number of EPA inspections has also declined since 2005. In a recently-issued draft strategic plan, EPA indicated that it intends to place a greater reliance on so-called “Next Generation Compliance Strategies,” by which it means self-regulation by industries along with enhanced public information. [12] At the same time, law makers stipulated $380 million to renewable energy research in the FY 2015 budget while providing $498.5 million to nuclear energy research and $571 million to fossil fuel research.[13] In an all-of-the-above energy strategy, it is clear which fuels law makers favor.


When the majority of Americans are squeezed financially or fallen into poverty, democracy suffers. When democracy suffers, social programs like environmental regulation and welfare suffer as well. Poor people are disenfranchised because they do not feel confident in their ability to make a difference, they are isolated socially, and they do not have the time to learn about social issues, candidates, and how to take action.[14] In a country where access to communication, transportation, and healthcare are privatized, large segments of the population become virtually invisible. The poor are not able to get help from the government and so they no longer seek help. They become outcasts in society, putting up with whatever indignities are heaped upon their person or their environment. Meanwhile, corporate giants are able to give millions of dollars to political campaigns to ensure that candidates that espouse their causes get elected and impoverish the poor even more.

Poverty also makes communities more susceptible to exploitation by corporations that want to take advantage of their natural resources. Wealthy communities are able to use their social and political capital to impose not-in-my-backyard resistance against corporations that want to dump toxins into their rivers, construct landfills near their schools, and sell their wildlife refuges for property development, capital that poor communities do not have. Communities that depend on industries that destroy the environment for their livelihood are especially at risk, such as communities in the vast region of Appalachia dependent on coal mining for their economy. The fracking industry is similarly using its economic leverage over communities by buying out homeowners for the right to drill on their land. When residents are faced with the health effects of contaminated water supplies and air pollution the same corporations buy their silence with nondisclosure agreements.[15]

On a purely financial level, sustainability requires investments of upfront capital that simply aren’t available to the poor. A low income household does not have the money to install solar panels, buy new energy efficient appliances, or insulate homes even when these actions save money in the long run. The poor eat cheap food and skip preventative health care which leads to chronic problems. At the level of state and local government, communities that cannot invest in energy efficiency, pollution prevention, and biodiversity see their environment deteriorate to the point where wealthier residents no longer want to live there, resulting in a declining tax base that leads to even more poverty and unsustainability. The desire for the cheapest short term option in planning and development can lock in patterns of high energy consumption for decades to come.

What about the argument that if everyone were to live a middle class American life we’d need ten planets? Isn’t a growing middle class an environmental nemesis? Yes, if we are talking about a particular kind of American middle class life that is all about driving SUVs and living in McMansions. But a high standard of living does not have to have a huge carbon footprint, and a modest standard of living would be a huge improvement for the millions that currently struggle with homelessness and poverty. In the UK, for example, where the child poverty rate is less than half of what it is in the United States,[16] per capita greenhouse gas emissions in 2009 (8.5 tonnes ) is also less than half that of the United States (17.2 tonnes).[17] How do they do it? With smaller, denser housing arrangements, excellent public transportation, and high fuel efficiency for their vehicles and utilities. Scandinavian countries such as Denmark and Sweden, which have the lowest child poverty rates also have the smallest carbon footprints of developing countries. Their quality of life comes from having universal healthcare, guaranteed retirement income, access to free higher education and quality childcare, and rich cultural institutions rather than lots and lots of stuff.

child povertyPoverty and unsustainability are both outcomes of the same ideology that created the corporatized world in which we live today. They are both characterized by exploitation of the commons, the privatization of public assets, and the externalization of costs in order to maximize profits. In the name of freedom, neoliberalism gives the strong license to plunder the weak. Like colonialism, it allows those with superior weapons to conquer those who don’t have the power to resist, such as the poor, other species, and future generations. Combating poverty and unsustainability requires adopting policies and practices that are the reverse of neoliberalism. These include investing in the commons, redistributing wealth, and internalizing the cost of externalities.

Invest in the commons: The commons includes our shared environment such as the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, forests and open spaces. The commons also includes man-made assets such as public parks, streets, public transit systems, public schools and universal healthcare. They are benefits that everyone can access at little or no cost. This winter we witnessed the devastation that underinvestment in public transit caused to cities like Boston whose roads were paralyzed by apocalyptic levels of snow. We also witnessed what happened when decades of wetland destruction left New Orleans and the Gulf Coast vulnerable to hurricanes. In addition to preserving wilderness and the atmposhere, at the micro-level, planting a tree is improving the commons; installing a recycling bin is improving the commons; adding a bike lane is improving the commons. The more sustainability can benefit everyone and not just the rich the better.

Redistribute wealth: It doesn’t benefit anyone for wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a few. The wealthiest people cannot spend enough money to make much difference on the economy. When wealth is distributed to poor people, they spend it on things that they need and want, and that spending fuels the economy. A progressive tax system that puts the heaviest burden of taxes on the wealthy would not only put more money into government which can then be invested in the commons, but also incentivize business owners to put more money back into their businesses, whether that’s paying their workers more, hiring more people, or getting their workers better educated. Redistributing wealth also means paying workers more, providing more benefits, and extending welfare for the unemployed. A bigger and better educated middle class means more financially secure people who can participate in democracy. It also means more people who are willing to fight for clean air, clean water, parks to play in, and healthy and safe neighborhoods.

Internalize the cost of externalities: In economics, an externality is a consequence of economic activity that is experienced by unrelated third parties. For example, bottled water companies profit from selling bottled water, but the public pays the cost of recycling and disposing of all those plastic bottles. Utilities make money by burning fossil fuels, but they do not pay the cost of polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions and causing global warming. Similarly, companies like Walmart that pay low wages and no benefits to their employees make huge profits by externalizing the cost of their employees’ healthcare and living expenses. Those employees have to have government assistance to survive, which amounts to a direct subsidy to the corporation from the government. Policies such as a carbon tax, extended producer responsibility, and mandating living wages and benefits for employees have the effect of correcting these externalities.

If fighting poverty is good for sustainability, many sustainability initiatives are also good for fighting poverty, and those are the ones that we should prioritize. Public transportation is a prime example where environmental benefits intersect with economic development and social equity. CSAs and the local food movement give people access to fresh food and decreases the carbon emissions associated with modern industrial agriculture. Urban forestry captures CO2, reduces the urban heat island effect, and increases the aesthetic appeal of urban neighborhoods. The emerging sharing economy, exemplified by companies like Uber and Airbnb and social networks like Freecycle and Craigslist, promote reuse, sharing, and help put money back into the pockets of average Americans.

Protests, direct action, and signing petitions are all ways to participate in democracy, which is our best tool for addressing problems at the system level. The divestment movement is such a strategy because it directly resists the corporations in their quest for profit at the expense of our commons. As hard as it is, we should take time to be educated and participate even if our capitalist society is not supportive of education or participation. We need to vote and have a say in decisions that involve the development or exploitation of our commons. We need to reverse the decision to let corporations have the same rights as natural persons and make unlimited contributions to political campaigns. We need to support progressive taxation and end tax cuts for the very rich, and resist cuts to education, welfare, parks and other aspects of our commons. And we need to bring back unions so that workers can fight for fair pay, better working conditions, and retirement benefits without fear of individual retaliation.

The central tenets of neoliberalism are counter to both economic social justice and sustainability. If we want healthy ecosystems and less income inequality, then we need to embrace policies that are the reverse of those engendered by neoliberalism. In the words of Naomi Klein, we must recognize that “we are not apart from nature but of it. That acting collectively for a greater good is not suspect, and such common projects of mutual aid are responsible for our specie’s greatest accomplishments. That greed must be disciplined and tempered by both rule and example. And poverty amidst plenty is unconscionable.”[18]

I do not know if Luann Prokoff was able to pay for the heat this winter, the worst that the Northeast has seen in decades. Like many Americans, her children probably had to go without meals even as they lowered the thermostat. She probably had to choose between paying her mortgage or buying Christmas presents. Poverty depletes human capital, without which it is impossible to fight against the forces of greed and corruption that plunder the weak. The environmental movement must benefit people like her if it seeks to be a broad-based social movement that can seriously challenge the status quo.

[1] Abramsky, Sasha. The American Way of Poverty. Nation Books. New York. 2013. Page 19.

[2] Abramsky, Sasha. The American Way of Poverty. Nation Books. New York. 2013. Page 9.

[3] Hartmann, Thom. The Crash of 2016. Twelve, Hachette Book Group. 2013. Page 31.

[4] Abramsky, Sasha. The American Way of Poverty. Nation Books. New York. 2013. Page 26.

[5] Hartmann, Thom. The Crash of 2016. Twelve, Hachette Book Group. 2013. Page 81.

[6] Piketty, Thomas. translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer. Capital in the Twentieth Century. Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. 2014.

[7] Environmental Protection Agency. U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report: 1990-2013. April 2015. http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/usinventoryreport.html

[8] Neuhauser, Alan. “Oil spills aplenty since Exxon Valdez.” US News. March 25. 2014. http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2014/03/25/us-racks-up-dozens-of-oil-spills-in-25-years-since-exxon-valdez Last accessed April 14, 2015.

[9] Cama, Timothy. “Greens: Obama caved on fracking.” The Hill. March 24, 2015. http://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/236700-environmentalists-obama-caved-on-fracking. Last accessed April 4, 2015.

[10] Ritenbaugh, Stephanie. “EPA analysis details water usage in fracking in Pennsylvania.” Power Source. April 7, 2015. http://powersource.post-gazette.com/powersource/companies-powersource/2015/04/07/EPA-analysis-details-water-usage-in-fracking/stories/201504070016 Last accessed April 14, 2015.

[11] Koshgarian, Linda. “Cromnibus Winners and Losers: Renewable vs. Fossil and Nuclear Energy.” National Priorities Project. December 18, 2014. https://www.nationalpriorities.org/blog/2014/12/18/cromnibus-winners-and-losers-renewable-vs-fossil-and-nuclear-energy/ Last accessed April 14, 2015.

[12] Slesinger, Scott. “EPA Spending in the President’s Budget: Where Does the 0.22% of Federal Spending Go?” NRDC Switchboard. March 21, 2014. http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/sslesinger/epa_spending_in_the_presidents.html Last accessed April 14, 2015.

[13] Koshgarian, Linda. “Cromnibus Winners and Losers: Renewable vs. Fossil and Nuclear Energy.” National Priorities Project. December 18, 2014. https://www.nationalpriorities.org/blog/2014/12/18/cromnibus-winners-and-losers-renewable-vs-fossil-and-nuclear-energy/ Last accessed April 14, 2015.

[14] Cohen, Andrew. “How voter ID laws are being used to disenfranchise minorities and the poor.” The Atlantic. March 16, 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/03/how-voter-id-laws-are-being-used-to-disenfranchise-minorities-and-the-poor/254572/. Last accessed April 14, 2015.

[15] Efstathiou Jr, Jim and Mark Drajem. “Drillers silence fracking claims with sealed settlements.” Bloomberg Business. June 6, 2013. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-06-06/drillers-silence-fracking-claims-with-sealed-settlements. Last accessed April 14, 2015.

[16] Fisher, Max. “Map: How 35 countries compare on child poverty (the US is ranked 34th).” The Washington Post. April 15, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/04/15/map-how-35-countries-compare-on-child-poverty-the-u-s-is-ranked-34th/. Last accessed April 14, 2015.

[17]Wikipedia. “List of countries by carbon dioxide emissions per capita.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions_per_capita. Last accessed April 14, 2015.

[18] Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything. Simon & Schuster. 2014. Page 61.