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by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer

Dear Earthtalk: The holidays can be so wasteful. What are some ways we can green our celebrations this year? -- Belinda McHugh, Los Angeles, CA

Sipping eggnog, listening to carols by the fire and enjoying the beauty of colorfully decorated homes are all warm memories the holiday season conjures. Yet with the rising popularity of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, millions of people are now increasingly absorbed in the season’s commercialism. The National Retail Federation estimates that holiday sales this year will add up to $630.5 billion. All of this shopping generates a lot of trash. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans throw away approximately one million extra tons of trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

“Simplify the Holidays,” an e-booklet from the Center for a New American Dream (CNAD), reports that nine in 10 Americans believe holidays should be more about family and caring for others, not giving and receiving gifts, yet the average U.S. consumer plans to spend more this year—about $805—on holiday shopping than last year. To help provide meaningful ways to have fun with less stuff this season, “Simplify the Holidays” includes ideas for simple gifts, low-waste wrapping, ways to connect with your children during the holidays, and more. Readers are asked to “consider creating holidays that instill more meaning into the season and encourage more sharing, laughter, creativity and personal renewal.”

“It’s not about depriving yourself of things during the holiday season,” Wen Lee, director of online media and engagement with CNAD, emphasizes. “It’s about refocusing on things that really matter, and reducing stress.”

Additional easy, stress-free ways to respect the environment during the holidays include carrying reusable totes when shopping for gifts, and using LED lights, which last 20-30 years and require 1/50th the electricity of conventional lights for decorating your tree or home. According to CalRecycle, the 2.6 billion holiday cards sold each year could fill a football field 10 stories high—fortunately, the multitude of e-cards available on the web today provide a no-waste alternative.

Further, the 33 million Christmas trees the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates are sold in North America each year don’t have to end up in landfills—some areas have recycling programs that turn Christmas trees into wood chips and mulch, and some companies will home-deliver full-size, potted live trees and pick them up after New Year’s and re-plant them. And with nearly 60 percent of Americans admitting they receive unwanted gifts during the holidays, asking friends and family what gifts they really need or want is an easy way to save waste and minimize time-consuming returns.

Greening your holiday season certainly helps the environment, but research shows it is also good for personal and family well-being. The 2002 study, “What Makes for a Merry Christmas?” by psychologists Tim Kasser and Kennon Sheldon concluded that “family and religion provided the greatest benefit to holiday well-being.”  Kasser recently told the American Psychological Association (APA): “[Our study] found that to the extent people focused their holiday season around materialistic aims like spending and receiving, the less they were focused on spiritual aims…we also found people reported ‘merrier’ Christmases when spirituality was a large part of their holiday, but reported lower Christmas well-being to the extent that the holiday was dominated by materialistic aspects.”

CONTACTS: CNAD, www.newdream.org; EPA, www.epa.gov; APA, www.apa.org.

Dear EarthTalk: How are environmentalists and environmental groups using crowdfunding to get their projects off the ground? ?— Sean Jackson, Baltimore, MD

Crowdfunding relies on the collective effort of a large amount of individuals making online contributions to allow a project or venture to happen. ArtistShare, a website that allows fans to fund the creation of new artistic works, was the Internet's first fan-funded crowdfunding platform, launching its initial project in October 2003. Today, crowdfunding is a bit more crowded, to say the least, and among the most popular sites for this purpose today are GoFundMe, IndieGoGo, Kickstarter and Razoo. Crowdfunding has grown from a market of $880 million in 2010 to $16 billion in 2014, with 2015 estimated to surpass $34 billion.

A wide variety of both small and large-scale environmental endeavors are now utilizing this revolutionary new kind of fundraising. In November 2015, Indiegogo.com, the largest global crowdfunding platform, allowed the HomeBiogas system to reach their fundraising goal of $100,000 in 24 hours. The HomeBiogas system is a family-sized biogas system that converts any organic waste into clean cooking gas and a high quality liquid fertilizer for the garden. With the system, 2.2 pounds of food waste produces an average of about 200 liters of gas, which generates around one hour of cooking over a high flame. Also, using the HomeBiogas for one year saves six tons of CO2, the equivalent of your car’s yearly emission. The campaign will be active on IndieGoGo until December 23, 2015, and with the support gained they hope to streamline the products to households by May 2016.

On KickStarter.com, a creative project-focused crowdfunding site where “every project is an opportunity to create the universe and culture you want to see,” over 2,000 people pledged a total of some $280,000 to fund the Little Sun Charge high-performance solar phone charger, developed by artist Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederik Ottesen. Backers of the Little Sun, which offers a full smartphone charge from five hours of sunshine, are projected to receive the product in March 2016. The device is handheld and can be clipped to a backpack to collect sun when walking outdoors.

Smaller scale—but equally impactful—current environmental efforts seeking crowdfunding include: Ashley Hoffman’s Fundraiser for the Kentucky Association for Environmental Education; the World Parrot Trust USA’s effort to save wild parrots from being stolen from their nests and forced into captivity; the Washington Youth Garden’s living garden classroom that provides hands-on science learning, inspires environmental stewardship and cultivates healthy food choices in youth and families; the Franklin Land Trust’s work with Western Massachusetts landowners to conserve farms, woodlands and scenic vistas; and the Nature Conservancy’s innovative approach to turn farmland into temporary habitat for millions of migrating birds. All of these campaigns are posted on Razoo.com, which has helped non-profit organizations raise $450 million since 2006. Any registered non-profit can claim its Razoo page and start raising money online immediately through the site’s customizable fundraising portal.

While crowdfunding to support environmental campaigns and projects may still be in its infancy, no doubt more and more non-profit leaders and activists will embrace it as a way to expand their constituencies and pay for operations in the most democratic way possible.

CONTACTS: ArtistShare, www.artistshare.com; GoFundMe, www.gofundme.com; IndieGoGo, www.indiegogo.com; KickStarter, www.kickstarter.com; Razoo, www.razoo.com.

Dear Earthtalk: Whatever happened to Al Gore? He was all over the media around the time of An Inconvenient Truth but lately I haven’t heard anything about him. -- Jim Mercer, St. Paul, MN
Al Gore, one of the first recognizable faces of the environmental movement, sent ripples throughout the political world when he released his enormously successful book, An Inconvenient Truth, back in 2006. His environmental leadership dates back much further, however: He was traveling the country warning about the impending climate crisis in the early 1990s, and as Vice-President under Bill Clinton, Gore was a key proponent of U.S. and international participation in the Kyoto Protocol, an ultimately unsuccessful effort to align international efforts on greenhouse gas emissions reductions back in 1997. 

After losing his bid for the Presidency on a technicality in 2000, Gore left politics and devoted himself to raising awareness about climate change through speeches, activism and the publication of An Inconvenient Truth—as well as production of the follow-up documentary film of the same name, which took home an Oscar for Best Documentary. 

With the publication of An Inconvenient Truth, Gore launched two non-profits committed to making climate change a political priority in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which he consolidated into the Climate Reality Project in 2011. Gore still devotes about half his time to climate campaigning, recently addressing negotiators at the COP21 climate talks in Paris about how to enlist everyday people as “global citizens” in efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

Gore has also devoted lots of his time since 2000 on another form of green: making money. While it’s well known that his investments since he lost the White House to George W. Bush have turned Gore into a rich man with a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, less is known about the methods employed to make this money. Generation Investment Management (GIM), the firm he founded in 2004 with ex-Goldman Sachs executive, David Blood, practices an entirely new form of capitalism—a model they hope the entire world economy will one day share. Instead of religiously following the highest short-term revenue strategy, GIM’s “sustainable investment” approach takes into account environmental, social and economic damage. Though not a new idea, here is the kicker: They are enormously profitable, with a 10-year average of 12.1 percent yearly increase, ranking them second of over 200 firms analyzed by the consulting firm Mercer.

While the current capitalist system focuses on short-term gains based on market demand, the sustainable-capitalist model also adds effects on environment and society. For example, Coca-Cola is enormously successful under the traditional system. However, Generation sees it as unsustainable, as its history of environmental conflict and its links to obesity will eventually result in health concerns, leading to a crash like the tobacco industry. Similarly, Generation views petroleum, while one of the largest industries today, as a bad bet over the long haul for similar reasons: The more oil that’s burned, the bigger the reaction will be against it. The new approach that allows Generation to actually profit from this idealistic mentality is their ability to see ethical investments as an advantage, rather than an inherent negative. 

This revolutionary model is one of the newest trends in capitalism, and just might be its savior. Consuming at an unsustainable rate cannot continue for much longer, so adapting to this new system could be one of the most important legacies of Al Gore.

CONTACTS: Climate Reality Project, www.climaterealityproject.org; GIM, www.generationim.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What do green groups think about the outcome of the recent Paris climate talks?
  -- Jackie Lupinacci, Pittsburgh, PA

On December 12, 2015, 195 countries assembled at the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris produced a 32-page agreement outlining goals to phase out industrial carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. All countries agreed on “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

Each country submitted a voluntary pledge for cutting its CO2 emissions, known as an “intended nationally determined contribution,” or INDC. These pledges are not strong enough to achieve the two degree target, but countries involved are required to monitor and report their emissions data, which will be reviewed every five years, and are expected to update their emissions reductions over time.

“While the Paris commitments won’t deliver all the emissions reductions that are needed, the agreement provides a framework to ratchet up ambition over time: a transparent system for reporting and review, regular assessments of progress, and strengthening of commitments every five years beginning in 2020,” said Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “The agreement relies on each nation to enact its own policies to reduce emissions while ensuring that their progress can be monitored by all. We look forward to each country’s work to both meet and build on their pledges in order to finish the hard work of protecting future generations.”

But distant promises standing in for present-day pledges adequate enough to achieve the agreement’s temperature goals have left many green groups disappointed. In a statement issued shortly after the release of the final agreement, Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, said: “Every government seems now to recognize the fossil fuel era must end, and soon. But the power of the fossil fuel industry is reflected in the text, which drags out the transition so far that endless climate damage will be done. Since pace is the crucial question now, activists must redouble our efforts to weaken that industry.”

Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, reflected post-Paris that a continued, unrelenting push for clean, renewable fuels by green groups is crucial. “When it comes to forcing real, meaningful action, Paris fails to meet the moment,” Naidoo said. “We have a 1.5-degree wall to climb, but the ladder isn’t long enough… To pull us free of fossil fuels we are going to need to mobilize in ever greater numbers…We will push our beautifully simple solution to climate change—100 percent renewable energy for all—and make sure it is heard and embraced.”

In addition to green group backlash, the Paris agreement was openly condemned in recent press and by former NASA scientist James Hansen, who called it “fraud,” yet some remain optimistic that the conversion to sustainable energy is inevitable. Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, told ThinkProgress: “The leaders of the world recognize that the consequences of noncompliance are disastrous. We are looking at the wholesale transformation of our global climate. The main incentive here for compliance is not the threat of some civil penalty—non-compliance would mean environmental disaster.”

CONTACTS: EDF, www.edf.org; 350.org, www.350.org; Greenpeace International, www.greenpeace.org/international; Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, web.law.columbia.edu/climate-change.

EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. View past columns at:www.earthtalk.org Or e-mail us your question: earthtalk@emagazine.com

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