We Can Still Save the Planet - OZY | A Modern Media Company

We Can Still Save the Planet

We Can Still Save the Planet

By Liam Jamieson, Isabelle Lee and Charu Sudan Kasturi


Because people are banding together to save the planet from climate change.

By Liam Jamieson, Isabelle Lee and Charu Sudan Kasturi

“The Earth is what we all have in common,” said novelist and environmentalist Wendell Berry. And it is that spirit that drives this OZY Sunday Magazine, exploring how people are banding together to protect species and fight climate change. Technology is playing its part too, from drone shepherds and solar skyscrapers to lab frogs engineered to replace our appetite for real ones. But lasting change depends on brave advocates, some of whom even put their lives on the line, leading the charge.


counterintuitive conservation

Kill to Save. Botswana and South Africa are encouraging limited hunting of species nearing extinction … to rescue them. Sound crazy? They’ve concluded that banning hunting altogether leaves poor local communities vulnerable to bribes from poachers. Instead, they’re allowing strictly regulated trophy hunting and game farming. That creates a local economy that benefits communities situated next to wildlife-rich regions, giving them an incentive to ensure endangered species survive. It’s an approach that’s worked with Botswana’s elephants and South Africa’s roan antelope. Could it also work with other endangered species, from Brazil’s jaguars to India’s lions?

Lab Frogs. They’re not frogging around. Scientists at sustainable bio-commerce company Wikiri are breeding Ecuador’s rare frog species in a lab to target the illegal pet market. The argument? As long as there’s a demand for Ecuador’s wild frogs, trafficking won’t stop, and it’s better to feed that appetite with lab-grown croakers, leaving the wild ones safe. But some critics worry that legalizing trade in lab frogs could provide a cover for trafficking in the wild species too.

Shepherds Who Rescue Wolves. For centuries, shepherds along the India-China border in the region of Ladakh have battled wolves and snow leopards that target their yaks. Now conservationists are using Buddhism’s tenets of coexistence and respect for all living creatures to convince villagers to dismantle their wolf traps and set up special enclaves where the predators can find prey other than yaks. If successful, it could offer a spiritual basis for resolving human-animal conflict elsewhere. Read More on OZY.

Gambian Gamble Pays Off. Farms vs. forests. It’s the classic conundrum that has long confronted resource management as humanity tries to scale up agriculture. But the West African nation of Gambia is upending the antagonistic presumption. Over the past quarter century, it has increased land under cultivation, halved its undernourished population and increased forest cover by 10 percent. Its solution? Handing over ownership of forests to local communities with a rich regional history that will ensure the green cover stays intact and keeps growing. Read More on OZY.

planetary power and politics

The White House. When Ali Zaidi worked at the Obama White House, the goal was simply to show the effects of global warming. Now in his mid-30s, the Pakistani American lawyer is leading a new climate change strategy for the Biden administration — one that incorporates racial and economic justice seamlessly into environmental efforts. “The breadth at which we go about tackling this issue is very, very different,” the deputy climate adviser told OZY. Getting conservative Americans to rally around Biden’s plans won’t be easy, which is why the president will lean heavily on Zaidi, a Democrat who grew up in the Rust Beltespousing a Republican ethos before going green.

Cleaning Up Infrastructure. Zaidi will play a key role in shepherding Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan through Congress, given that it carries with it a number of environmental aims — from a $174 billion jolt to the electric vehicle market to $100 billion for updating the country’s power grid. The biggest goal of all: Biden’s ambitious plan to hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. America isn’t alone; in fact, a new space race may be forming around that lofty aim. Despite historically being a massive polluter, China plans to beat both the U.S. and Europe to the punch by investing in clean power technologies and nuclear energy.

Climate Cash Grab. There is a larger scramble by nations to benefit from efforts to address climate change — or, in some cases, to benefit from the wreckage left in its wake. Nowhere is that battle being played out more aggressively than in the Arctic, where Russia and the U.S. are engaged in a new cold war that’s dropped well below freezing. Oil companies like the Russia-based Transneft are expanding drilling while profiting from new shipping routes created by ice breakage. And China-backed Greenland Minerals recently tried to mine a valuable rare-earth deposit in Greenland, although those efforts may be rebuffed after the local green party won the largest vote share in elections earlier this month. Read More on OZY.


rough ride ahead

Coconut vs. Palm. The West’s obsession with coconut oil has exploded, as it becomes a key ingredient in meat and dairy alternatives. Yet 8 million small-scale coconut farmers in the Philippines and Indonesia, the two largest coconut exporters, are struggling despite everybody going cuckoo for coconut. As Western demand for coconut oil has soared, the demand for palm oil has plummeted. So the deforestation-inducing palm oil industry has targeted buyers in those same coconut-oil-producing countries. Palm oil’s lower prices are too attractive for local buyers to resist, even in the Philippines, where it has practically replaced coconut as the country’s most popular cooking oil, despite hurting domestic farmers and the environment. Read More on OZY.

Okavango Oil. Namibia has huge economic potential because of its vast natural resources. But tapping them could incur serious environmental costs. Canadian oil and gas company ReconAfrica has begun oil exploration and drilling in the country’s northeast Okavango region, a mere 160 miles upstream from the Okavango Delta, a crucial wildlife habitat. ReconAfrica’s licensed area also threatens the migratory route of the world’s biggest elephant population. Local residents say ReconAfrica has excluded them from stakeholder conversations and obscured larger ambitions of exploitation that they believe include fracking. And it’s those local lives, along with the wildlife, that will be most impacted by the drilling.

Nori Nightmare. Seaweed off the coast of Japan is disappearing — and so might your sushi. One of the causes? Not enough pollution. Regulations to clean up Japanese rivers have led to an absence of agricultural waste and fertilizers in the waterways, bringing fewer nutrients into the ocean that help seaweed grow. This impacts the taste and nutrition of the seaweed, rendering increasing amounts of the farmers’ harvests unsellable. Japanese nori farmers have voiced their concerns, but no amount of protest will stop warming waters — which have already shrunk the nori growing season by as much as a month. Read More on OZY.

Something Fishy. Almost no great white shark attacks? While Cape Town’s swimmers and surfers may breathe a bit easier, environmentalists are worried. The dearth in great whites is likely due to Australia’s love of fish and chips. The smaller shark species preferred by fish and chip shops in Australia are being overfished, a trend that coincides with the recent drop in sightings of great whites. The large predators rely on those bite-size sharks for about 30 percent of their diet. Reaping the economic rewards of the fish exports, South African authorities have questioned the findings.

Mekong Sand Mining. They have their head in the sand. River sand is crucial to construction projects in urban areas such as the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. This leads to dredging along the Mekong River, thus altering it despite the 60 million people who rely on the river for sustenance. Dredging exacerbates flooding and endangers one of the world’s largest freshwater fisheries while regulators reportedly look the other way. The practice also structurally undermines houses on the waterway’s banks, potentially displacing families receiving little to no government assistance.

wildlife warriors saving the day

Vanessa Nakate. The Associated Press landed in hot water when the wire service cropped Nakate, a Black Ugandan climate activist, out of a photo with other (white) activists from Davos in January 2020. Nakate, whose message, “We cannot eat coal. We cannot drink oil,” has spread globally, refuses to be muted. Now the 24-year-old is on the TIME 2021 Next List for a host of accomplishments. Most notably? Her work with two organizations she founded, the women-empowering Rise Up Movement and the Green Schools Project, which helps Ugandan schools transition to solar energy.

Mordecai Ogada. Modern-day conservation is the new colonialism, according to this agitator extraordinaire. Ogada has spent his 50-something years in love with the wildlife of his home country of Kenya. The Ph.D., with degrees in both zoology and ecology, is known for declaring that Black Africans deserve a place in conservation conversations instead of being blamed for the continent’s environmental problems. The activist is as contentious as he is fearless, going so far as to call his fellow environmentalists “prostitutes” for too readily accepting donor-driven solutions that favor instant gratification over long-term results. Read More on OZY.

Sunita Dhairyam. From Zambia to the U.K. to the U.S. and then to India — that’s the circuitous journey Dhairyam took before settling on the outskirts of Bandipur National Park in Karnataka state. Now in her late 50s, the artist sells paintings to tourists to raise funds to compensate villagers who lose livestock to the park’s tigers and leopards. She provides free monthly medical camps and provides medical care for local livestock through her organization, the Mariamma Charitable Trust. She hopes that by alleviating the economic strain in her community, conservation will become a higher priority.

Akashinga. What’s the secret to protecting Zimbabwe’s endangered elephants? According to nonprofit Akashinga, it’s women. This Zimbabwean group employs female rangers who come from abusive or impoverished backgrounds. The gun-toting vegans hunt poachers and teach their communities about the value of wildlife. Akashinga, which means “brave ones,” is Zimbabwe’s first all-female anti-poaching unit and operates in the Phundundu wildlife sanctuary about 260 kilometers from the capital Harare. They’ve earned the respect of their peers, having racked up 51 arrests in the program’s first nine months.

Virunga Rangers. Located in the Democratic Republic of Congo near Uganda, Virunga National Park is one of Africa’s most biodiverse areas … and one of its most dangerous. The Congolese rangers guarding endangered mountain gorillas there work under constant threat of violence. Six rangers were killed in a January attack, possibly by a rebel militia, and they were not the first victims. More than 200 rangers have died defending the gorillas throughout the park’s storied past.

back from the brink


Humpback Whale. They’re finally having a whale of a time. Ravaged by decades of unrestrained hunting, the singing sea creatures were headed for a watery grave. But the 1986 ban on commercial whaling, giving whales safe spaces to thrive, has sparked a dramatic revival. Today, the waters off the coast of Brazil and Antarctica are once again populated with humpback whales, which are back to an estimated 93 percent of their pre-whaling numbers. And because whales store tons of CO2, their recovery is also good news for the environment.

Blue Iguana. The world had given up on these turquoise-blue Caribbean wonders as of 2002. There were only 10 to 25 of them left, and the Grand Cayman species was declared functionally extinct. But conservationist Fred Burton and his team bred blue iguanas in home laboratories and fed them plants, reviving their numbers to 750 by 2013 and more than 1,000 by 2018. Most of them reside in the Grand Cayman Salina Reserve, with conservationists letting adults out into the wild after microchipping them and adorning them with beads for tracking purposes. It’s risky business, given they could fall prey to dogs and other predators — but a necessary one since the iguanas don’t thrive while caged.

Santa Cruz Island Fox. The four-pound creature from California’s Channel Islands never had to worry about predators until around 2002. That’s when feral pigs began attracting golden eagles … which decided foxes were fair game too. But by creating a safe haven for the remaining foxes, while also removing all alien pigs from the island, conservationists have rescripted history, marking the fastest revival of any species ever added to America’s list of endangered creatures. That’s after they were removed from the list just 16 years later in 2018.

Echo Parakeet. Dubbed the world’s rarest parrot in the 1980s, things looked bad for this Mauritius native as its numbers fell to about a dozen due to poor nesting survival rates amid predation. But the island nation’s conservationists set in place a plan that — unlike with the Santa Cruz Island fox — emphasized patience, not speed. They painstakingly identified how invasive species, parasites and hunger were the culprits, then set about defeating them through captive breeding and other methods. Now decades later, the population has rebounded to nearly 800.

Parched Lands. A quarter of India’s vast territory, mostly concentrated in its western states, is rapidly turning into an extension of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. That’s threatening to further stress the country’s resources as people are forced to survive on less arable land. But communities are fighting back, renovating old ponds and digging new ones to store rainwater. The approach is spreading across the region’s villages, transforming parched lands into beacons of hope.

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