Pictured Above: Damon Gameau and Paul Hawken discussed the ideas behind Project Drawdown during the opening presentation of Drawdown East End’s Drawdown Festival.
It’s easy to be pessimistic about the state of the Earth’s climate, and about what climate change means in the not-so-long run for the humans and other creatures who inhabit this planet. But pessimism doesn’t spur people to action.
That’s part of the thinking behind Project Drawdown, a comprehensive series of tools that everyone can use to make a dent in the amount of carbon that is warming our atmosphere.
“This is about embracing this obstacle and turning it into opportunity and community,” says Darr Reilly of Southampton, a founder of Drawdown East End and one of the organizers behind the virtual Drawdown Festival the group held in partnership with the Southampton Arts Center over the weekend of Jan. 21.
The concept of “Drawdown” is in essence very simple — drawdown is a finite moment in the future at which humans can begin to capture more carbon than is released into the atmosphere, reversing a trend that has continued to escalate since the industrial revolution.
The United Nations has found that two-thirds of decisions that affect the amount of carbon in our atmosphere are made at the household level — primarily through our choices around heating and cooling our homes, our modes of transportation, how we eat and what we chose to purchase.
Two thinkers at the forefront of the Drawdown movement, Damon Gameau, the filmmaker behind “2040,” a film about the change we can make over the next two decades, and environmentalist Paul Hawken of the Drawdown Project spent two hours on the opening night of the festival talking about the psychology, sociology, philosophy and hard science behind both the idea of Drawdown, and the idea of “Regeneration,” the title of Mr. Hawken’s latest book, which is about how to go about making the changes that will rebuild the Earth’s resources.
“Regeneration can only start from understanding the place where you live,” said Mr. Gameau. “So many of us remain disconnected from our own backyards.”
For Mr. Gameau, who is Australian, that understanding come from learning about the ways indigenous people in his country took care of the land, and understanding the native landscape, which includes lemon aspen and finger lime trees, as well as grieving for the droughts and fires, and the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, which have now become embedded in the Australian psyche as their version of climate change.
“In our area, regeneration looks very different from in your area of the world,” he said. “I feel like a really important part of my role is the cultural piece. It’s the storytelling piece that has traditionally shifted us as humans. If people are the seeds, the culture is the soil. We need to move away from the collective story that we are separate from nature.”
Mr. Gameau added that our brains are wired, when we only hear negative information, to respond by activating the limbic system, the deep-rooted seat in our amygdalas that controls our emotional responses, which includes becoming disengaged from solving problems.
“It shuts down the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that wants to problem-solve,” he said.
“We’re drowning in this stuff,” said Mr. Hawken of the bad news about climate change. “We need to really acknowledge and praise the scientists — the science is extraordinary, but we need to draw a line between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. This wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t have a solution.”
“Climate communication, as well-intended as it has been and is, is so basically inept,” he added. “Basically, we’re lighting up these parts of the brain that tell us to shut it down. Climate change isn’t the problem. What we’re doing is the problem.”
Mr. Hawken agreed that the place to start is by understanding where you live.
“You need to understand the speciation, the history, both cultural and biological” of where you live, he said. “Find out what is missing, what we have destroyed. That gives you an appreciation of what is possible.”
“The most important technology we have now is our hearts and minds and our imagination, and a sense of the sacred,” said Mr. Gameau.
The series of concrete actions, outlined in Mr. Hawken’s books, “Drawdown” and “Regeneration,” were the focus of a weekend full of discussions at the festival, all aimed to show that action can really be quite simple (Read More Here).
“I process disturbing information every day, because that’s my job,” said Mr. Hawken. “But I only do that in the morning, because if I did it at night, I couldn’t sleep. What oftentimes is missing is the understanding that doing changes us. Actions change our beliefs, how we see the world, and they change the beliefs of people around us.”
Mr. Gameau told the story of U.S. Admiral James Stockdale, who, as a Navy aviator was a prisoner of war for seven years in Hanoi, during the Vietnam War. He said that prisoners with him who had dreams of escaping that weren’t fulfilled “would deflate and perish, but the ones that really honestly faced the circumstances, and felt the horror of where they were, but had an unwavering, muscular, radical hope that they would get through,” were the ones who survived.
“I feel that way, especially in my country,” said Mr. Gameau. “I let myself feel that and cry accordingly, but there’s an extraordinary suite of tools being developed. There is hope in the shadows, away from the spotlight on the main stage. If you look in the wings, wow, you can’t help but be inspired. We’re planting seeds to build a future thriving civilization.”
“Once you start connecting with these people, your spirits lift and you feel like you’re part of something special. After the fires here in Australia, I found that community,” he added. “No matter where this ends up, what a beautiful way to live your life, regardless.”
Mr. Hawken said peoples’ personal experience of extreme weather is what is now changing minds that hadn’t been changed sooner, when climate change was a more abstract threat.
“Ninety-eight percent of people on earth are not doing anything (about climate change) right now,” said Mr. Hawken. “We’re rehearsing the future. At the beginning of the suffragist movement, they could only get 3,000 women to march, and then eight to ten years later, everything changed. Suddenly, we have these tipping points that create such enormous change, very quickly. We forget that’s possible again. That’s motivation to keep going as well. When the movement does come, people will need these tools. It will come down to water, air and soil health.”
Incremental change over the next couple decades will have a powerful effect, he said.
“If we increase carbon drawdown by 1/3 of one percent a year, in 30 years, that alone will get us to 280 parts per million (ppm) of carbon in the atmosphere by 2050 (environmentalists have set a target of 350 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere to reverse climate change — that number was 412.5 ppm in 2020).
Mr. Hawken also told the story of a regenerative farmer in Ohio, who found that, after several years of working the land, he measured the carbon content of his soil, which was 9 percent, while a natural grassland nearby had soils with only 6 percent carbon.
“There are ripple effects — the sponginess of the soil creates microclimates,” said Mr. Gamau. “Farmers are surprised how much carbon their soils are actually able to hold.”
Mr. Hawken also praised the work of citizen scientists, including a German group of amateur entomologists who collected decades worth of quality data showing the decline of insects in their country.
“What was so beautiful about that story to me was it was about amateurs. Amateurs had discovered things that shocked scientists,” he said. “An amateur means ‘one who loves.’ I think we have to celebrate that we are all amateurs. The way to heal life on earth is to love, to be an amateur.”
Both Mr. Gameau and Mr. Hawken expounded at length on the virtues of regenerative agriculture and on the possibilities of the oceans working to help remove carbon from the atmosphere. They had fewer kind words for such devices as social media, carbon offsets and philanthropy.
“Social media is basically a black hole. It’s an instrument of consumption,” said Mr. Hawken. “But we need to share and learn from one another.”
Mr. Gameau was quick to draw a distinction between commercial social media platforms and social action networks, where people gather online to share advice on projects they’re working on around the world.
Mr. Hawken said the idea of carbon offsets, where you pay a non-profit to plant trees or take other measures that are supposed to sequester carbon when you do something carbon-intensive like take a long plane trip, “is crazy.”
“Offsetting a loss is not a gain,” he said. “And only five percent of offsets actually sequester carbon. The problem with it is that carbon is so cheap now, it’s ridiculous. In the U.S. and Europe, it’s $90 a ton. Get real. I fly very little, and when I do, I offset it to 10 times the emissions.”
Mr. Hawken said he believes now is the time for philanthropies to pay down their endowments toward projects that will protect the earth, instead of protecting their money by keeping it growing in investments that “are marginally questionable.”
“It’s hard to hold a billion dollars or five billion dollars in green small business,” he said. “I think that philanthropy should start acting like there is a planetary emergency, instead of keeping growing their endowments, at this time. Philanthropy has to roll up its sleeves. If your endowment is not here in 20 years, but the planet is, you will succeed.”
When it comes to buying things, Mr. Gameau said that “people don’t actually crave a thing. They crave the feeling the thing gives them.”
What they’re really craving, he theorized, is community.
“We are social creatures,” he said. “If there’s a fire, and someone grabs a bucket to put out the fire, everyone will run to help them.”
If there ever was a fire of our time, climate change is it.