Are We Past The Tipping Point? Grassroots Perspectives on Environmental Justice

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By Yusuph Masanja
Co-Coordinator, Global Alumni Network

On August 18th, 2021, the Goldin Institute Alumni Network invited Jeff Bonaldi, Founder and CEO of The Explorer’s Passage, to participate in a conversation about Environmental Justice. The discussion was moderated by Goldin Institute Team Coordinator Cree Noble and Chicago Peace Fellows Director Burrell Poe. The conversation reflected on Jeff’s work using adventure travel experiences to inspire people across the planet to care about the environment.

The conversation started with a question about where we can find hope in a world that is already struggling with the impacts of global warming and climate change.

“My reason for hope is all the amazing young people that I’m very fortunate to meet across the world who are trying to make the world a better place.”— Jeff Bonaldi

Through his travel company, Jeff has travelled to over 55 countries and met with people of all nationalities, race, age, and backgrounds. The one thing that Jeff has learned through his travels is that people are unified in what they want in their life: “...they want peace and coming together as a world.”

While challenges in terms of race and differences have continued to pull people apart in many communities around the world, including the United States, Jeff remarks that the bringing together of global communities from across the world brings him hope.

“We have people coming from India, young women from the United Arab Emirates, people like Yusuph from Tanzania who came on our expeditions to the Arctic, etc., work on projects, take ideas back home and create lifelong connections. I feel like these expeditions that we do are really a microcosm of what the world can be.”— Jeff Bonaldi

To highlight his reasons for hope, Burrell shared his experience working at Rain Ready (Center for Neighborhood Technology) where he facilitated inclusive dialogues among community members to address the problem of flooding in Chicago. The disconnect Burrell wrestled to resolve in a suburb outside of Chicago was between professionals (e.g., engineers), community leaders responsible for stormwater management, and community members who often get affected by floods. Burrell said:

“What we learned was that people needed to learn how to communicate with one another, so we spoke with the engineers and helped them understand how to communicate what's going on."

A lot of times that requires people who have power to admit that they can't control everything and they're not fully in charge. Climate related problems are bigger than them and their institutions. And then, with the community members, we educated them about the nature of the area their community is built on (a swamp area) and discussed solutions such as green spaces, rain gardens and green infrastructures, while facilitating inclusive conversations with the engineers.”— Burrell Poe

These conversations raised community awareness such that in the following town hall meetings, community members proposed solutions instead of complaining about flooding, asking questions such as:

  • Can we get green infrastructures on this street?
  • Can we work on expanding this creek?
  • Can we return that abandoned house back to nature and get trees there to avoid real estate companies constantly trying to resell such flooded property?

Through these solution-oriented conversations, the engineers agreed to work on options that were feasible.

Such kind of work gives Burrell hope as it aligns with his belief that nature is something that unites us all and that communicating with each other and humbling ourselves to the world around us is key to making progress.

Further adding to the problem of climate change, Jeff explored the relationship between fossil fuel companies and economic incentives. These companies may not stop drilling unless there was another greater monetary opportunity in other energy sources e.g. solar, wind etc. “How can we engage these companies and help them rethink their ways and move a few inches forward to the right direction through education and awareness?”

Jeff shared one example of how the partnerships in his work have managed to do just that. A partnership with Shell on some of the climate change expeditions he led influenced the company to make a shift to cut their Carbon dioxide emissions by half in the next 25 years. “Is it enough, probably not. Is it a step in the right direction, yes!” Additionally, Jeff added, “Another thing that came out from a partnership between an environmental activist, Robert Swan and Shell was the biofuel (made of algae and wood chips) they jointly developed, which Robert used on his skiing expeditions to the south pole. Such fuel is currently being used on buses in London and across the word.”

Another question explored by panelists was about different ways both individuals and institutions can contribute towards a more sustainable world.

“Reflect from where you are at the moment in life and see what you can do from there”— Jeff Bonaldi

Jeff commented that while it is great to focus on big dreams in life, the path to achieving those goals is not always straightforward. Using an example from his former experience working at Citibank, Jeff shared how he started by joining the Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) initiative there, to express his desire to promote sustainability. “I could not lead an environmental think tank while I was in banking, but I was able to get involved in the banking initiatives that spoke to my values and made me feel alive” Jeff said.

Similarly, Jeff carries the same approach to his adventure company today by constantly reflecting on how to make the world a better place. As a company, they ensure that each trip incorporates actions such as tree planting or sustainability education—like the expeditions to Antarctica with Robert Swan. “You can keep those big dreams, but again, think about where you're at now and how you can incorporate the things that you love and that you're passionate about into what you're doing”

Burrell commended Jeff’s work in how they enable people to act locally while thinking about the global perspective. Burrell encourages people to find practical examples of things they can do in the most environmentally sustainable way. He mentioned one example from the Goldin Global Fellow, Alexander Gwanvalla (Cameroon) who uses sustainable farming methods to produce food for his village. Burrell is a big fan of composting (something he had learned while in Korea), and has been able to inspire his neighbors to start composting as well. “I think if we all do what we can and share that story with others it starts to make that larger impact” — Burrell says.

Burrell also added that personal decisions such as cutting meat consumption, actively putting pressure on institutions where you have influence and ensuring local leaders in your community care about recycling can make a huge difference.

One experiential lesson Burrell highlighted was the contrast he noticed between South Korea and the United States of America. While in Korea, Burrell noticed that individuals were taking actions such as utilizing lands to grow food produce and making use of composting and the recycling systems on a daily basis. In contrast, he remarks that Americans are socially encouraged to consume vastly without much consideration for the amount of waste they produce. “It’s a minor inconvenience to take small actions such as composition but it’s not what we are culturally conditioned to do. We are culturally conditioned to consume in a lot of different ways!”

Jeff shared a lesson that he had learned from a project working with Roots & Shoots in Tanzania: if you plant one tree it is equal to removing 1 tonne of Carbon dioxide emissions if that tree lives for 30 years. He added that “One of the things that we can do is to offset our carbon dioxide emissions, and there are many organizations where you can do that through trees.”

“Unfortunately, most people don’t have the opportunity to travel to see and experience the magnitude of climate change. We therefore need to come up with tools for bringing awareness and education for people who can’t experience the problem in person.” Jeff suggested.

Annamaria Leon, a Chicago Peace Fellow, commented about how surprising it was for her to learn that some of the United State’s waste gets sent off to other places., She further added “I was shocked to find out that, besides the agricultural landscaping industry... the second one is the textile industry, how many resources we waste on textiles.”

Lo Ivan Castillo, a Goldin Global Fellow from the Philippines, highlighted the global injustices he sees in addressing the climate change problem. He wonders about the intersection of social and environmental justice given the fact that rich countries continue to pollute more and give donations to support environmental programs in poor countries at the same time. Burrell commented that to promote a global carbon neutral economy it is reasonable for wealthier countries to provide support to those who do not have enough resources.

In closing the conversation, Annamaria brought everyone’s attention to the reality of what we can do to inspire hope. The panelists and Alumni had the following hopeful messages to share:

“The scientists seem to think that we are already at the point of no return with regards to climate change, but I remain positive and hopeful, and I argue everyone to keep trying and we’ll find a way through this. There are hopeful initiatives happening around the world and more politicians are acknowledging the existence of climate change.” —Jeff Boaldi, Founder at the Explorer’s Passage

“In the long run some of our institution will lose because of the climate change but the humanity will definitely survive even if our lives might look different from what we are used to.”— Burrell Poe

Annamaria Leon shared: “My favorite movie is ‘The day after tomorrow’ because it gives me hope and my hope is to bring as many people along with me in my community and to pass on the knowledge that I have to my children and their friends and families in a wider scale as possible. Thank you for this forum, thank you.” 

The conversation was concluded with an emphasis from panelists to keep being optimistic while also taking action. And to recognize that some of the enduring values we have as humanity come from our interactions, connections and sharing about what we know with each other.

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