Culture Change For Climate Change

Konstanze Frischen

What do fishermen, school cafeterias and the Catholic Church have in common? It turns out they are all allies in the fight against climate change. Earlier this week, five social entrepreneurs gathered at The New School in New York City to discuss innovations to protect the environment. We found ourselves talking about funerals, oysters, and the Pope’s encyclical — and unearthed intriguing insights into how to address climate change: By tackling it from all sides, and by creating roles for varied institutions and for people from all walks of life.

Here are patterns of wisdom that emerged:

Look for unlikely partners that can shift norms at scale

Take school districts: they are often the largest buyers of food in any region. In other words, their dollars are hugely influential. The school district of Los Angeles, for example, serves over 700,000 meals per day, and has a food service budget of around $150M per year. Shifting the purchasing power of these institutions to a sustainable, value based model means winning big style. And this is exactly what Paula Daniels does. Her organization, Center for Good Food Purchasing, gives school districts across the U.S. a set of value based standards for purchasing food locally and sustainably, with respect for fair labor, animal welfare, and public health. Is it difficult to get buy-in? “These institutions know something needs to change,” Paula says. “We’re giving them the tools and the narrative. And they are ready to start.” The school district of L.A. went from less than 10% sourcing of local produce to an average of 60% of local produce in a year, which redirected $12 million into the local food economy, and created 150 new jobs. Currently, The Center is working across 15 cities and has over $900 million enrolled in the program.

Open eyes by mapping things in new ways

Take another ally, the Catholic Church. It is the largest private land holder in the world, with combined properties the size of France and Spain together. Respect for God’s creation is deeply embedded in faith, and Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si embraces climate action. But the Church is not known as the world’s largest conservation group. Why is that? Molly Burhans, founder of GoodLands, realized one factor was that the Church lacked the data and tools to understand literally its own size in the world. Maps hadn’t been updated since the Roman Empire. So Molly set to work. With the help of geospatial imaging, detailed maps were assembled. The data now represents a framework for action and decision making: It provides the necessary overview and shows, for instance, where the Catholic Church can step up as the most powerful non-state actor in a few key areas: addressing biodiversity (in places with fragile states, high biodiversity, and a lot of development pressure) and opening its properties for refugees. In other words: visualizing assets in new ways opens up room for possibilities and enables action.

What if we didn’t have to choose between jobs and the planet?

Bren Smith, the founder of GreenWave, worked as a fisherman in Newfoundland when the cod stock crashed due to overfishing. Overnight, almost 30,000 jobs disappeared.”The fishing economy that got built up for literally hundreds of years got wiped out overnight,” Bren says. The result of that experience: Bren invented a methodology that would enable him to earn a new living on the ocean, that would give fishermen a new livelihood. Therefore, he needed to restore the ecology of the waters. In comes the profession of the ocean farmer. Ocean farmers grow seaweed, oysters and scallops in vertical “3D” farms at sea. Anyone with a boat, two acres and $20k capital can start; there is no need for freshwater, fertilizer or feed. The potential impact, if only 5% of U.S. waters are farmed that way: 135M tons of carbon and 10M tons of nitrogen get absorbed, and the World Bank estimates there could be 50M new jobs. The winning argument for ocean farming, though, is not the appeal to save the planet. It’s the appeal to save oneself, to lead a self-determined life at sea, to support yourself and your family. Or, in Bren’s words, intentionally provocative: “You don’t have to care about birds and bees and bears. Climate change is a kitchen table issue. It’s about jobs and dignity.” Or, in other words: there are no jobs on a dead planet.

Harness the full market of ideas

The environmental movement is dominated by white people, even though 40% of the population is non-white. That is a problem on many levels. If the environmental field wants to stay relevant well into the future, it needs to keep up with the changing demography – not just to gain political wins, but to develop better, more creative ideas. But underneath that layer, there is the more profound and disturbing question: Who in the U.S. has been able to enjoy and work in the outdoors? And why? In comes Angelou Ezeilo, founder of Greening Youth Foundation. “Race is the pink elephant in the room,” she says. “So many young people will be disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. It just doesn’t make sense to not engage them as activists, and keep them from working in and enjoying nature.” Wanting to disrupt the notion of who can be in the outdoors, Greening Youth nurtures environmental stewardship from an early age, and has opened careers for thousands of young people of color in the environmental field. It is getting attention from all sides: Greening Youth just partnered with a prominent outdoor company to show the changing face of the movement.

Life is cyclical – let’s not forget this

A deep moment to reflect on life comes when confronted by death. Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, is honing in on this aspect by disrupting the $20 billion funeral industry: She uses nature as a model for human death care. As an ecological alternative to cremation and burials — that contribute to CO2 emissions and the release of toxins into the ground — Recompose turns a human body into soil within weeks. The body is placed in a vessel, with woodchips and straw and alfalfa, for 30 days. In May 2019, the State of Washington passed the country’s first bill to enable recomposing, with broad bi-partisan support. While making our final acts more natural will not save the climate per se, Katrina underscores its impact on how we perceive ourselves in the world: Embracing that our bodies turn to soil means we re-recognize that we are part of nature, we re-connect with the cyclical nature of life from which we have become disassociated. Says Katrina: “Being able to give back whatever nutrients are left my body, that concept has the power to actually drive change beyond the carbon impact.“ In other words, as we re-conceptualize our relationship with death, we change our relationship with life. And with it comes an awe for the natural world.

Konstanze Frischen is the Executive Director of Ashoka in North America. Before moving to the U.S. four years ago, she brought Ashoka to her native Germany and Western Europe.

This conversation is part of Welcome Change, Ashoka’s national tour of solutions. Watch the full conversation here, co-sponsored by The New School’s Impact Entrepreneurship Initiative and the Tishman Environment and Design Center.