Analysis |

Saving the Earth Is Still Possible. Here’s How

While the world leaders dither on, grassroots enterprises are showing the way to a more sustainable order, and as for the rest of us, signing petitions won’t do it

Yosef Gotlieb
Yosef Gotlieb
Worth saving isn't it
Worth saving isn't itCredit: Anton Balazh/AP
Yosef Gotlieb
Yosef Gotlieb

We can only speculate whether the climate summit, COP26, held in Glasgow earlier this month will significantly brake global warming. There is no international enforcement mechanism to guarantee that the agreed-to targets will be reached: each country is left to its own devices to meet its pledged reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Further, wrangling over wording aimed to hedge the commitments of the countries most responsible for GHGs suggests that leaders have yet to grasp the urgency: Unless appropriate action, which boils down to economic realignment, begins now, the consequences will be devastating.

With extreme weather, supply chain failures, resource scarcity and refugee crises signaling the end of an unsustainable and hugely wasteful economic order, innovators are not waiting for political figures or the captains of the moribund economy to take the lead. Initiatives based on clear vision of the challenges – and opportunities – ahead have begun sprouting from the ground up.

The recent World Circular Economy Forum sponsored by Canada and Finland showcased innovative enterprises mindful of the planet’s constraints. Some operate on the demand side, producing goods without waste and operating with a low carbon footprint, while others operate on the supply side.

Hundreds of millions of people work in extracting the basic materials we consume, yet they are among the world’s most impoverished citizens and their environments among the most depleted by the global market economy, which relies on the basic materials they provide. To make matters worse, in many cases these areas are the most vulnerable to climate impacts.

SukkhaCitta (“happiness,” in Indonesian) is a social enterprise that sought to rectify this situation. Started by a development economist seeking to make concrete change, SukkhaCitta enables villagers to use environmentally-friendly heritage methods in order to produce textiles using local materials. The fabrics are used to make chic clothing sold online through the association’s website. As a result, the producers receive socioeconomic benefits previously unavailable to them while working under conditions that maintain their dignity, environment and culture.

What impact do these remote rural women have on solving the global crises? Simply, the initiative offers proof-of-concept that one of the most flagrant sources of excesses in today’s economy, the apparel industry, can be corrected using low-impact technologies while offering a fairer deal to producers and preserving their environments.

According to the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), the manufacture of textiles and shoes are responsible for 8% of GHG emissions, uses an estimated 215 trillion liters of water per year, and is responsible for widespread chemical pollution of soil and water with dyes and detergents.

Consumers throw away an estimated $460 billion dollars of apparel yearly, yet if garment use was extended by original owners or repurchased by others, the savings in GHGs emissions alone would be 4% of the global carbon budget. Coupled with the abject working conditions that are the norm in the apparel industry, this vastly wasteful and harmful system must be changed at its source so that it no longer depletes and pollutes the resource base and grinds producers into poverty.

This also requires transformation on the demand side. The thoughtless ease with which clothes are purchased and discarded is being countered by the reconditioning and resale of garments in places ranging from neighborhood second-hand shops to the stores of the Eileen Fisher Company, which describes itself as a “sustainable clothing brand that’s committed to producing ethical designs from organic and recycled fabrics with minimal impact on the environment.” The Infinited Fiber Company based in Finland, which is explicitly committed to circular economics, has gone one step further: It has patented a process to make textiles from cellulose recovered from the waste stream, including old clothes, cardboard and crop residues.

While the leaders hem and haw, grassroots efforts are taking shapeCredit: Alberto Pezzali/AP

Alternative plastic

Plastics are another bane of our times. Conventional plastics are made from petroleum, require a lot of energy to make and can take centuries to decompose. Ubiquitous in our consumer economy, its production has been increasing by 100 million cubic tons a year and is expected to be responsible for 13% of carbon emissions by 2050.

Research shows that since the 1950s plastic production has outpaced that of any other artificial material, yet no end-of-use strategy has been formulated for the billions of tons already produced, which seriously imperil planetary systems. The New York Times, based on the Plastic Makers Waste Index, reports that major oil companies and petrostates along with leading investment houses – including ones ostensibly committed to mitigating climate change — continue to buttress the industry of disposables, despite the readily apparent hazard these products constitute.

Undoubtedly, plastics contribute to our lives. All sorts of useful products, including medical ones, are made from it. But the quality of plasticity can be achieved not only from petroleum products but biomaterials, as is done in Costa Rica where smallholders are making plastic from the peel of abacá, a species related to bananas.

Making fiber from abaca in Lagonoy, the PhilippinesCredit: MarvinBikolano, Wikimedia Commons

Growing crops that can serve as substitutes for carbon-based materials is one option, but refuse can also be used to produce such materials. For example, Toronto-based Genecis Bioindustries, which began as a master’s degree project in environmental sciences and has quickly gained industry partners and praise for its work. UBQ, an Israel-based company creates biomaterials with impressive sustainability properties directly from unsorted household waste.

Other businesses working on other critical fronts Include the Metsä Group, a Finnish cooperative of 100,000 “forest owners” including both large and small producers who are dedicated to circularity in forest stewardship, in production and throughout the supply chain. These companies produce wood products for construction as well as cardboard, paper towels, toilet tissue and packing wrap through sustainable methods. Eighty-six percent of their energy use is carbon-free and by employing byproducts and other biomass they have become a major supplier of renewable energy in Finland.

Elsewhere, deforestation occurs without producers replenishing stocks.

See chasm ahead. Ignore

While world leaders dither and many corporate executives remain oblivious to the chasm ahead, accelerators like PACE have articulated action plans for circularity in electronics, food, heavy machinery as well as textiles; other groups are doing the same concerning building and infrastructure, forestry, agricultureand additional economic branches; and regional alliances of enterprises engaged in and proponents of circular economy have been established in Africa, Latin America as well as Europe.

Building a circular economy, with its emphasis on resource recovery, reducing waste , reconditioning machinery, recycling building and infrastructure stock and developing new biomaterials will require innovative, knowledge-rich technologies. The creation of new jobs needed for a smart economy and the careful stewardship of natural resources is part and parcel of the transition to sustainability.

Which brings us back to Glasgow. While some government leaders, such as Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, demonstrated impressive leadership at the conclave, summitry will take us only so far. Governments are subject to considerable drag generated by entrenched interests of the old economic order and their efficacy in leading change will likely be limited. The most effective fulcrums of change, then, will be at the levels where people live, work and interact and where the frightening impacts of climate change are now keenly felt.

Amazon on fire: The vast forest is now emitting more carbon than it absorbsCredit: MAURO PIMENTEL - AFP

Erecting the new order begins with collective recognition that the present economic system not only produced a patchwork of wealth and poverty, but is fundamentally unsustainable.

The new order requires a collaborative mindset and learning to meet our needs within the limits of our planetary budgets. Along with affixing our names on petitions and demanding governmental action no less at the local level than at the national one, we all have a role as producers and consumers in recrafting the material basis of society. This has everything to do with the food we eat, how we shelter and transport ourselves, what we wear and what we prioritize as necessary for a good and salutary life.

The future will be determined by our individual and collective decisions and there are two options. We can deny the planetary crisis or resign ourselves to it and hope that we are not around to see its worsening effects. But rather than effectively insuring defeat, we can take a proactive stand and usher in a new and satisfying modernity that will heal the harms of the old and endow those who come after us with a world that can sustain them.

Doing our part will mean adjusting our lifestyles and priorities, making our economic choices more carefully, participating in local green initiatives, and unrelentingly pressing for government and international action.

This can be done, but only if each of us become agents of change.

This article is part of a series by Dr. Yosef Gotlieb describing the origins of climate change and the planetary crisis, its economic roots, new approaches for dealing with these threats, and initiatives to build a sustainable new order.

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