Taking responsibility for climate change



What are we willing to do?

At the weekly meeting of our Spirituality and Environmental Conservation class, UMass Professor Dr. Erin Baker introduced us to the basics of climate change.  She explained the connection between burning fossil fuels, increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and severe disruption of climate patterns worldwide.  And then she asked us what we were willing to do.  Big question!

I was not surprised when this group of concerned students and local community members expressed a willingness to make personal changes to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere.  Among the changes either suggested or currently practiced were bicycle riding, reducing meat in our diets, investing in renewable energy, turning down the thermostat and turning off the lights, composting waste, ride sharing, etc.  Dr. Baker herself walked to the evening class from her home, which is her common practice.  The class is largely made up of individuals who see a direct connection between our own personal behavior and “something bigger than themselves” such as family, community, mother nature and/or the divine. This is a motivated group that feels responsible for our contribution to climate change.

Personal change is necessary but not sufficient!

Although Dr. Baker reminded us that personal change can have only a very limited impact on the global crisis, most members of the class continued to believe that a personal commitment to changing behavior was important.  From a political perceptive, we recognize that personal change is necessary but not sufficient We know it is unlikely that the significant policy and economic shifts required to reduce carbon emissions will be possible without widespread citizen action.  We know that politicians will see us as hypocrites when we advocate for policy change but do nothing ourselves to change our lives  Finally, we know that without a change in campaign finance laws, politicians who are directly influenced by major financial donors are are unlikely to pass any meaningful legislation.

So……  we are left with taking personal action, building a political movement from the ground up, and continuing to point out that the impact of climate change will be unevenly distributed on the poor and most vulnerable people on the planet.  We cannot afford to wait for politicians to make responsible social decisions.  So we begin with the question……

How much carbon do I contribute to the problem

How much carbon dioxide do we release as individuals each year.  Well, the average U.S Citizen contributes about 24 metric tons per year as follows:

  • Home Energy (36.8%)
  • Driving & Flying (43.5%)
  • Recycling & Waste (4.4%)
  • Food & Diet (15.3%)

If we were serious about changing our behavior, perhaps we should also be willing to invest an amount of money equal to our personal share of the Social Cost of Carbon in making things better.  For most adults this would be 24 metric tonnes x $39 or almost $1,000 per year.

But what about those of us who ride bikes?

Right, many of us already take actions to reduce our carbon footprint.  Personally, I ride a bike (well, when the weather is nice), dry my clothes in the sun, have solar hot water and electricity on the roof, use an electricity provider that guarantees they purchase power generated by the wind, have a big garden, rarely fly in an airplane, buy local food, etc.   I’m a good guy!  Nevertheless when I did a rough calculation of my carbon footprint, all of this good behavior only reduced my impact by about 8 metric tonnes.  So using my calculation, I still “owe” about $624 toward my own Social Cost of Carbon.

For the past few years, I’ve used a carbon calculator to “offset” the cost of my behavior.  One of the speakers in our class, Dr. Daniel Greenberg, however convinced me that I need to invest in the future rather than try to offset my behavior.  His organization Earth Deeds was created to help. Rather than trying to “buy a clean conscious” with an offset, Dr. Greenberg convinced me that we need to “pay it forward” by investing in solutions that address the causes as well as the impacts of global climate change.

If I am willing to take responsibility for my own behavior I need to invest at least $624 in local projects that help the planet both adapt to the impact of climate change and reduce the amount of carbon we release.  I might consider supporting projects that create more wind and solar power, or plant trees to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, or raise animals on well-managed pasture which puts carbon into the soil.  Anyway, this would be a good beginning.

What is the carbon cost of our class?

As individuals, there is much we can do.  But as a class, there is one more thing.  We might to try to model better behavior by taking responsibility for the social cost of the carbon emissions generated by the class itself.  I did a simple and crude calculation.

A rough estimate of the carbon footprint for everyone in our class can be calculated from the UMass Climate Action Plan. This study suggests that each person on campus accounts for about 4.2 metric tons of carbon released into the atmosphere per year, mostly from burning of fossil fuels for heat and electricity.

If we use the EPA figure on the Social Cost of Carbon ($39/mT), we each would have a carbon cost of (4.2 mT x $39) or $163.80 per person for the year.   Then, if we assume that a student might take 16 credits per semester or 32 credits per year, a rough calculation would find that the social cost of carbon for our one credit class was about five dollars ($5.00).  Members of the local community would have a slightly higher cost because we generally drove a few miles to get to class (although this is a small cost).

 Where do we go from here?

We have a choice. We can leave this problem to someone else or we can take action ourselves.  Our class is in the process of planning several action projects.  One of them is to invite participants to contribute an amount of money they choose to support projects that will address the impact of climate change.  Individuals might want to contribute $5.00 to account for the impact of our class.  Others might want to contribute more to account for other aspects of their lives.

This project is being supported by Earth Deeds. Contributions will be collected and distributed according to guidelines determined by our class.  It is a beginning……

A Declaration of Values – to guide our work as academics


what-makes-medicine-scientific-15-638How often are those of us at the public university told that science must be “value-free”….. that is objective and impartial?  I disagree…..

Rather, I suggest that we need to clarify the values that drive our work and make them transparent to the public.  In fact, the so-called “value-free” university must be more influenced by values, public values such as; truth over objectivity, public service over selfishness, scholarship over politics, and compassion over competition. This blog presents a set of values and a belief system that guides my work as an academic.

About 15 years ago, I was privileged to participate in a group of activists and scholars who created a so-called Declaration of Interdependence which presents a clear statement of values to guide our work as academics.

Please post your response to this statement below.


The declaration states;

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thus begins the Declaration of Independence, the first premise of American democracy, signed by the Founding Fathers on July 4, 1776, to establish independence from tyrannical foreign rule. While honoring the wisdom of the founding documents, we recognize that they have fallen short of providing essential protection against a modern form of tyranny not envisioned in the 18th Century: the tyranny of unbridled market competition, combined with rapidly expanding corporate control of production, marketing, and political power. This new form of tyranny often undermines the Right of humans to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Further, conventional economic analysis, being inherently devoid of ethics and compassion, often supports and directs public policy and private actions detrimental to these Rights. Specifically, we hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • that the Earth and all its components (both living and non-living things, including Air, Water, Fire and Earth) and all species have inherent worth apart from their current or anticipated future market value;
  • that humans as an integral part of Earth, and Earth as a living entity, are worthy of respect and protection from exploitative actions motivated by unlimited greed and financial self-interest;
  • that in community relationships based on love, respect for life, and stewardship of Earth rests the primary source of true abundance, beyond short-term material gain;
  • that all things on and in the Earth are interconnected, and that this interdependency is eternal and universal, transcending time and space;
  • that according to universal laws of Nature, the quality and sustainability of human life depends on harmonious, interdependent relationships among people, and between people and their natural and social environments.

Humanity’s struggle for independence and prosperity has not benefited all persons equally. While many have attained freedom and material prosperity, hundreds of millions chronically lack essential freedoms, the bare necessities of survival, and hope of a decent quality of life. Humanity’s struggle has often created dis-harmony with Nature and among people. Where resources essential to future generations are depleted or degraded, and where equitable access is denied, both the current and future quality of life for all humanity is jeopardized and Earth itself is imperiled.

Humanity lacks the wisdom to anticipate which resources will become critically limiting in the future, and which seemingly benign technologies and institutions will later prove to be destructive to the environment, harmful to human health, and contrary to community values and norms. Therefore, we should follow the Precautionary Principle of taking steps to prevent unknown harm, and the Seventh Generation Principle traditionally practiced by many Native Americans, seeking to leave for future generations opportunities better than those we inherited from our ancestors.

Therefore, We Declare Our Interdependence with all things, all peoples and the Earth, of which humanity is an integral part. All decisions must be made wisely, in view of this interdependence.

The dominant economic paradigm, postulating unlimited greed and financial self-interest as the basis for allocating income and wealth, must no longer be allowed to miss-direct public policy or to justify socially, ecologically, and economically harmful behavior of firms and individuals. We challenge the profession of economics to re-invent its paradigm in ways that will become consistent with the first premise of democracy — that all humans have an unalienable Right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Economics can and should begin to promote sustainable human well-being and long-term stewardship of Earth.

We acknowledge and embrace our responsibility for ourselves, for each other, and for the stewardship of Earth. We invite all people to join us in dedicating our lives and fortunes to the goal of sustaining the ecological integrity of the Earth, and attaining prosperity and quality of life for all.


The Declaration of Interdependence is a call for changing the focus of the questions we address through our research and education to be more inline with service to the public good.  I believe as academics we have a responsibility to clarify our values and make them visible to the public.  The university has never been a “value-free” environment but at times the values that drive our work are not transparent.  We can do better…..


If you want to explore an academic program based on these values, check out our UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences degree program and our Online Certificate Program at the University of Massachusetts.  And see my other World.edu posts, or join my Just Food Now Facebook group, or follow my Twitter posts.

Urban Agriculture in the Motor City


By Matthew Kirby, UMass Sustainable Food and Farming student in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture

oldhouseMany symbols of American culture have come out of Detroit, Michigan.  Motown Records and classic American cars are some of the things that come to mind when someone mentions Detroit. However, since the collapse of the American auto industry and the economic decline that followed, the city is also known for its high crime rate, poverty and abandoned buildings. The city filed for nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in 2013. Detroiters however, have not given up on their city and what has now become one of the largest urban agriculture initiatives in the United States is a testament to their determination and the power of local food.

oldbuildingsThe population decline in Detroit has led to 70,000 abandoned buildings, 31,000 abandoned houses and 90,000 vacant lots. Poverty and unemployment has limited Detroiters access to fresh, nutritional food. The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative however believes that vacant land, poor diet, nutritional illiteracy, and food insecurity are several problems in Detroit that can be reversed by grassroots urban agriculture. By using abandoned land to produce food, Detroiters have begun to increase their access to real food and create jobs.


Vacant lots mean land is inexpensive

There are several businesses and non profit organizations that have taken the lead in Detroit’s urban farming movement. Food Field, for example, is a business that started in 2011 by turning an abandoned school into a four acre organic farm. With nearly 20 square miles of vacant space and a poor economy, the city is very willing to sell its vacant lots to people interested in urban agriculture. Food Field produces a wide range of vegetables including spinach, tomatoes, garlic, sweet potatoes, radish pods and squash blossoms. They also have apple, pear, cherry, plum, chestnut and paw paw tress as well as over 50 laying hens and ducks, a pond of 500 catfish and blue gill and honeybees. This food is sold through a cooperative called the City Commons CSA, which sells food from several farms in Detroit to local businesses and CSA members.

motorcityThe Greening of Detroit is a non profit organization which plants trees, gardens and farms throughout Detroit. Not only do these grassroots organizations produce food and jobs, but by beautifying the city, they can boost residents’ morale and make the place more desirable for visitors. Furthermore, the Greening of Detroit started an organization called Green Corps, which hires about 200 high school students each summer to tend these gardens. Since the start of Green Corps 45 schools in Detroit have started their own raised bed gardens to supply their cafeterias. Rebecca Witt, who runs the Greening of Detroit says that “We’re teaching [students] how eating the stuff that they’re growing is different than going to the gas station and buying Cheetos. People always talk about the difficulties of getting kids to eat vegetables. When they grow those vegetables, it’s not hard at all.

pumpkinkidAnother element on the forefront of urban agriculture in Detroit is Detroit Grown and Made. The campaign was created in 2014 as a collaboration between the Detroit FoodLab and farms in Detroit. The FoodLab is a network of local restaurant owners and food entrepreneurs. By organizing with local farms, Detroit Grown and Made seeks to have all food based businesses in Detroit source their products from Detroit farms.

Guns and Butter is one such restaurant which sources a lot of their food from Detroit farms and hires Detroiters. In this way, urban agriculture helps create jobs in other sectors of society. General Motors, too, wishes to see their city revitalized and has recently begun to donate old engine shipping containers to be used as raised beds in vacant lots. This way the owner of the lot doesn’t have to tear up the asphalt to produce crops.

detriotDetroit’s motto is “We hope for better things; It shall rise from the ashes”.  It seems that the city has lived up to the motto and has been able to turn decay and ruin into productive and beautiful spaces. As we have seen in Cuba’s urban farming revolution, economic hardship often causes people to rethink how they use their urban space, and hopefully Detroiters’ determination and ingenuity will help them to continue to recover their vibrant city spirit.


For information on the Sustainable Food and Farming major at the University of Massachusetts see, http://sustfoodfarm.org/.  You may provide feedback on this article to the author at; Matt Kirby.