NWEI Intern Shares Inspiration & Advice

Former NWEI Intern Erik Horngren
Former NWEI Intern Erik Horngren

We here at NWEI are honored to work with some of the best and brightest interns – people who are just beginning their journey in working for a more sustainable world. Today’s Changemaker Interview is with Erik Horngren, who served as a Curriculum Intern with NWEI in 2010 and 2011. Erik shares inspiration for those who are looking for ways to begin working in the sustainability field. He also reminds us that, regardless of where you start, change does indeed begin with each of us. For Erik, learning to appreciate the environment was a catalyst in his choice to take responsibility for Earth.

Tell us a bit about the work you did as an intern with NWEI.
I helped with curriculum development, primarily researching articles for course books, developing graphics, sidebars, author bios, and serving on the curriculum committees. The best part about interning with NWEI was that I was learning every day – not just job related skills, but information that would benefit my everyday life. Being exposed to all the new thoughts, ideas, efforts, and facts that make up all the great articles in an NWEI course book really helped grow my understanding and appreciation for sustainability. It also helped me make positive changes in my life, in that I realized I couldn’t just expose myself to this kind of information on a daily basis and not do something about it, and start to adopt what I was learning into my lifestyle.

Tell us what you are doing today, and does the work of NWEI influence what you do today?

I currently serve as Master Composter/Recycler Program Coordinator at Columbia Springs Environmental Education Center in Vancouver, WA. This program works to educate the community about composting, recycling, overall waste reduction, and other aspects of sustainability. We do this through workshops, community events, web and print resources, and hands-on demonstration sites. We are driven by an amazing group of volunteers (trained Master Composter/Recyclers) who provide the bulk of our outreach. So yes, sustainability influences what I do every day, and I know NWEI helped me get here!

What motivated you to enter the sustainability field?

I grew up with an appreciation for the environment that was instilled in me by my parents, so it probably started there. It’s important to me that everyone be able to experience the great natural places our world has to offer — I have been especially inspired to feel this way by doing a lot hiking and exploring. Not only that, we also all deserve access to clean and abundant natural resources. This is far from our current reality, but promoting sustainability can help steer us in this direction and that’s what motivates me to be a part of this change.

What inspires you to keep working in the face of complex challenges and setbacks?

I feel like a lot of the challenges we face stem from a lack of knowledge and understanding. In my current job specifically, I come across a lot of people who are interested in doing the right thing (with recycling for example), but either don’t know what that is, or maybe have been doing the wrong thing thinking it’s right. People don’t do things like this out of a sense of spite or hatred, they do it because they don’t know any better. In my position, I can give people the tools to do better and they are often appreciative and excited to have the resources necessary to do something positive. So what inspires me is knowing that if we are willing to take an action as simple as sharing our knowledge with others, it can have a beneficial impact both for them and our world.

What insight and wisdom can you offer to others who are beginning to work in the sustainability field and who are working to make a difference in their communities?

Establishing yourself in this field doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of time, work, and patience. Trust that what you are doing matters and will pay off down the line. The great thing about sustainability related projects is that no matter what role you play- intern, volunteer, concerned citizen, paid employee – what you do makes a difference and can have a positive impact on the lives of others and our planet. There are also a million different things you can do to promote sustainability (education, research, advocacy, outdoor fieldwork – my personal favorite), so find the best fit for you and enjoy it!

Erik Horngren served as a Curriculum Development Intern with NWEI in 2010 and 2011. He currently coordinates the Master Composter/Recycler program, a community waste reduction and sustainability education project in Vancouver, WA. When he’s not sifting through compost or sorting recyclables, you can find Erik eating something delicious, exploring the wilderness or on his bicycle.

*Interested in interning with NWEI? Email us at contact@nwei.org. 

Decarbonization by 2050 – Is it Possible?

downloadThis week UN climate negotiations are taking place in Lima, Peru. And although there is criticism around the venue’s large carbon footprint, there is good news: Eight Latin American countries have pledged to combat deforestation and restore an area of land twice the size of Britain by 2020. The move is part of a global plan to plant hundreds of millions of trees and save over one billion tons of CO2 a year. Also of note: campaigners in Lima are eyeing an ‘inevitable’ end to the fossil fuel industry by mid-century. As Graham Readfearn’s article reflects, the goal to end fossil fuels by 2050 has officially surfaced. Here’s how Lima’s climate talks may be paving the way to decarbonization by 2050:

It’s a rare thing when you can point to paragraphs in a United Nations climate negotiating text and feel they more or less match what most of the science says should become a reality. Yet in Lima on Monday, it happened. Our little revolutionary moment comes in a document with the memorable title “ADP 2-7 agenda item 3 Elements for a draft negotiating text” with its climate-busting section D (paragraph 13.2) outlining several possible long-term goals for a new climate change agreement. Here’s a taster from the document. Parties’ efforts to take the form of:

A long-term zero emissions sustainable development pathway: Consistent with emissions peaking for developed countries in 2015, with an aim of zero net emissions by 2050; in the context of equitable access to sustainable development. Consistent with carbon neutrality/net zero emissions by 2050, or full decarbonization by 2050 and/or negative emissions by 2100;….

In this context “parties” refers to countries which are signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Here in Lima, we are at a “Conference of the Parties” or COP. The document in question is what’s known as a negotiating text, and in this case it contains a whole grab bag of aspirational long-term goals…It is a very early version of what, over the course of the next 12 months, will morph into a new global deal to be signed in Paris…But if language such as “full decarbonization by 2050” were to become a reality, it basically defines an end point for the fossil fuel energy industry as we know it…

As veteran climate negotiations watcher Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained: This text won’t be settled here. It is an options text that then needs to be translated into a legal text and it won’t be decided until the last night at Paris. So which long-term goal survives the end of the day we won’t know until a year from now.

But there was incredible political momentum coming out of the climate summit in New York where about 60 national leaders endorsed the need for a long-term goal as part of the Paris agreement and that number is continuing to grow. We have more and more businesses, faith groups and unions speaking out – there is a momentum building around this and I think by Paris next year the chances of a strong goal staying in the agreement are probably much greater than they are right now…

*To learn more and read the full article, click here. 

Change Starts with You! Join Us for a Course Organizer Training, January 22nd

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Do you want to make real progress toward a more sustainable world? Do you want to create a community of change? Do you want to access a support network of like-minded peers who, together, can make a just and sustainable community a reality? Organizing a Northwest Earth Institute discussion course is a great way to begin!

As you know, NW Earth Institute discussion courses give people a framework to talk about their relationship with the planet and to share in discovering new ways to live, work, create and consume. And – all NW Earth Institute discussion courses begin with a Course Organizer (like you) and the desire to create a community of change. The Course Organizer initiates the discussion course group and serves as the primary contact for the group. You don’t have to be a ‘sustainability expert.’ Organizers are simply people who are motivated to help others learn about and commit to action through the discussion course experience.

On January 22, 2015, at 11:00 am PST, we’re offering a Course Organizer Training Webinar for anyone who is interested in or curious about organizing a NW Earth Institute discussion course. If you’re feeling inspired to organize a course and would like to gain tools and strategies for success, engaging in our Course Organizer training webinar will provide extra support and tips for you, including a question and answer period with NWEI staff and access to helpful tools, including a detailed Course Organizer’s guide.

*Want to join? Space is limited. Please register here to reserve your spot.



How Taiwan Proves that Richer Countries Don’t Have to Produce More Waste

Photo by Rosie Spinks
Photo by Rosie Spinks

Rosie Spinks’ article, Yes, Richer Countries Produce More Waste. But Do They Have To? got all of us at NWEI talking about how a few changes in education and policy can shift the amount of trash generated at the national level. Since many of us focused on trash reduction for this year’s EcoChallenge, this article brings fresh ideas and inspiration. For Rosie’s full article, click here

When it’s garbage day in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, you won’t see abandoned trash bags on the streets waiting for pickup, as you might in Manhattan. Instead, you’ll find Taiwanese citizens lining up to heave their own bags into the garbage truck each and every night. By turning rubbish collection into a daily civic duty, this island of 23.5 million has been remarkably successful at achieving something that eludes most developing nations: The richer Taiwan gets, the less trash it produces.

Thanks to policies implemented in 1988, the government has been able to decouple GDP growth and production of household waste over a period of about one generation. As the nation’s wealth has risen—approaching $40,000 per capita—the Taiwanese somehow managed to waste less and defy the notion put forth by economists Michael McDonough and Carl Riccadonna that economic growth leads to more consumption and, therefore, more waste. Today, the average Taiwanese citizen produces less than a kilogram of trash per day, according to the Taiwanese Institute for Sustainable Energy. By comparison, the average American produces roughly two kilos (or about four and a half pounds).

So how has Taiwan done it? First, through education. School children receive environmentally themed lessons as part of the curriculum from kindergarten all the way through high school. But it doesn’t end there. All government officials—including the president and prime minister—must receive at least four hours of environmental education each year…

But perhaps most effective is the nation’s policy on household waste. In addition to depositing their own bags, Taiwanese residents must also be mindful of how much trash they are accumulating. Landfill-bound garbage can only be collected in government-issued blue bags, which are sold behind the counter at convenience stores. While the cost is not prohibitive—the price increases with size, with a pack of the five largest bags costing $10—it’s certainly enough to moderate what people throw out. (Forging garbage bags can incur a much heftier fine, and sometimes a prison sentence.) The approach has been so effective that Taiwan is in the process of closing some of its 24 trash incinerators because they simply don’t need them anymore…

But one of the most significant things about Taiwan’s trash program—and something developed nations would do well to emulate—is the public buy-in that the government has managed to achieve. It’s hard to imagine the extent of the uproar that would ensue if Americans had to exchange their 50-count rolls of three-gallon garbage bags for buying five pricey ones at a time, but it appears much of Taiwan’s citizenry is on board…

To learn more about how Taiwan does it – and to read the full article, click here.


Advice for Changemakers: First, Educate. Second, Engage.

unnamedIn today’s NWEI changemaker interview, Vinit Allen, Executive Director of Sustainable World Coalition (one of NWEI’s partner organizations), reminds us of the importance of education coupled with deep engagement when it comes to working for a sustainable future.

What has been a primary motivator for you becoming a community organizer and a leader in the sustainability field?

There is a story to that. In 2002, I was working with the United Nations Association of San Francisco, and they wanted to send a few delegates to the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. I was a graphic designer at the time. I knew it would be an amazing experience, and that I would learn a lot. I was able to go, and while I was there I wanted to assess where we stood in terms of having a plan with regards to the big environmental issues I was hearing about. I also knew the summit would represent humanity’s best ideas. I learned we were in deep trouble – that there was a very serious situation across the board. I also learned about all kinds of solutions underway across the world and got a pretty good sense of how to move forward.

On the airplane on the way home, it became really clear to me that other people needed to find these things out too — people largely didn’t know this essential information at the time. I realized I had the skills to begin offering this information to other people, so as soon as I got back home I created my own non-profit and joined Earth Island institute. I created a conference through my new organization, the Sustainable World Coalition – and I also created the Sustainable World Symposium. Around the same time the Pachamama Alliance had created their symposium, so I jumped into their camp and became trained as a facilitator. I maintained my own organization and began developing the Sustainable World Sourcebook.

changemakerTell us what inspires you to keep working in the face of complex challenges and setbacks.

I’m inspired by the fact that I know that we have all come out of the Earth and we are part of the Earth, and that the Earth does not simply provide resources for humans but this is our home, and animals are our kindred species. With that recognition, there is nothing else I can imagine myself doing. There is a lot each one of us can do. I love the work. I know there will be a lot of loss and challenge, but I also know that evolution only goes forward. No matter how many people go forward, I think we’ll begin living in the proper way again. We’ll learn those lessons that we are learning now, and we will begin applying what we have learned. This is a hopeful, optimistic scenario – even though I do expect losses, too. We will have deal with those losses and keep moving forward.

Share one story of something that worked in your efforts to effect change. What contributed to the success?

My most treasured testimonial is a three-page hand-written letter by a man who participated in an environmental program in the San Quentin State Prison. I had donated 30 or so Sustainable World Sourcebooks to their Green Life program. The man wrote in simple language that he had been sustained by receiving the books. He shared a meaningful story about suffering so much in a largely unjust criminal system. Yet, learning about and practicing sustainability had given him hope.

What insight and wisdom can you offer to other changemakers who are working to make a difference in their communities?
NWEI resources are fantastic. As I have said before, the two most important steps are to first, get educated. Know what the most effective actions are, both individually and via our collective organizations. The second step is to get fully engaged and do whatever we can, especially in our personal lives. For example, something like transportation and energy use may be harder to cut down, but food choices have a huge impact and something we are in control of. Find out how meat and dairy are connected to huge negative impacts on the planet. We can find out what we can do and begin to make those changes. Education and then taking action are key to making change. Community leaders need to have this two-pronged approach of education and engagement. Pachamama Alliance has discovered this as well: it is not enough to give an overview of challenges, but we need to offer pathways to engagement, and clear structures to get involved with as well.

Vinit Allen is the founder and executive director of Sustainable World Coalition—a nonprofit project of Earth Island Institute—and co-founder of the new Planet Earth Arts. Vinit is an artist, educator and event producer, and has been an activist in the arenas of the environment, peace and human rights for about 30 years. He produced the Sustainable World Symposium twice in San Francisco and is a facilitator trainer for the Awakening the Dreamer Symposium. He was a delegate at the UN World Summit In Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002, where Sustainable World Coalition was conceived.

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