Part I – ‘Black swan’ Philippines: From disaster relief to clean technology advocacy and commercialization

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In Fall 2009, a series of seven super typhoons and tropical storms struck the Philippines between August and October–a 3-month period that reshaped the trajectory of my life and career. Fall 2009 is my ‘black swan’ event, to borrow a term from Nassim Taleb. This post is part of a series in which I will bring order to my journey since 2009, from anti-poverty crusader to running a CleanTech incubator for the grass-roots. The resulting series will show how I sought meaning from the chaos.

It Began with Chaos

That those seven extreme weather events wreaked havoc in three Northern Provinces where I have relatives was news too heavy to bear; yet, I could not help but be drawn to and consumed by the news. I binged on cable news, Youtube videos, and online news that brought coverage.

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The impact on me was part shock, part paralysis; I also remember feeling a deep sense of empathy, nationalism, and love for a community that raised me from birth but had to leave as a young boy. And there was also anger and drive. That my people were dying first, in high numbers, and frequently was deeply maddening; it left a living mark on my soul that prodded me to reinvent my work and, in the process, my self.

I was in professional limbo for many years immediately after Fall 2009, having lost faith in social work as a helping profession capable of responding to climate change. I was full of questions.

What is the point in human service delivery if the field were impotent in addressing the macro-level root causes of extreme weather events?

What is the point in a profession that helps others “feel good” and “cope adaptively” after the fact, while at once mute and irrelevant in decarbonization?

What is social work good for if it cannot proactively protect those who are imperiled? If it is technically ill-suited and technologically unprepared as a solution-maker in the Information Age?

As a social worker, what am I good for if I’m impotent in dealing with the social welfare issues tied to the climate crisis?

It took several years to heal and regain my center, reclaim the sure-footedness I lost. I forced my self to extract fulfillment from the work I was doing, but as I contrived the meaning-making, I just felt further out of love with social work. I wanted a major change. I wanted to transition to a field more consequential.

Now, even as I still find myself reinventing the work with others, I am buoyed by the prospect of solid, muscular hope. I am building my tribe through CYPHER. And for the first time in a long time, our invented work can be magnified, made as sharp as a spearhead, with AASWSW GC8: Harnessing technology for social good.

 

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An Earth that does not kill: A reflection on Newt Gingrich’s silly, unserious question

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I had a strong negative reaction to Newt Gingrich’s recent claim that it is pure hubris for climate advocates to work to mitigate climate change.

Why my strong reaction?
1) He appeared to take by surprise the other panelists for a split second, and (2) as result of that effect, I suspect that we’ll be hearing this silly question thrown around by the Right and other climate deniers for a while, distracting us from the real, more urgent dialogue around how to work together to prevent unnecessary further loss of life from climate change-related events.

He asked, “What’s the right temperature…for the planet?”

My short answer: bad question. Asking and answering his question does not inspire the right dialogue; it evades it.

Governance requires a line of thinking more grounded in the imperatives of public welfare. Clearly, arriving at a consensus on the right temperature, while I guess important, is beside the point when the immediate need is a pragmatic policy framework and public dialogue that work to prevent climate-related loss of life and property, something that continues to happen needlessly.

On CNNs GPS recently in June 2014, the President Anote Tong of Kiribati lamented that it is too late for many of his people whose islands have been swallowed up by rising seawater. From that interview, what I remember the most is him saying, “[It] is already too late for us…we are working together collectively with the countries in the (sic) like situation, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, the Maldives, where the impact of climate change is about total annihilation of … our nations.” You can watch the interview and read the transcript here.

How have we allowed our world to get so sick that it is now its own destroyer???

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson recently said that if the wealthy start losing money from climate change, things will change for the better at the policy level. I disagree. Regardless of what the elite chooses to do, those of us who have solutions with even the most remote chance of success should act. Ordinary people need to change, mostly in how they see themselves as non-actors in this global issue. Climate change solutions need to be as personal as its negative impacts which are many and varied depending on where one lives.

I see climate change as an all-encompassing mega issue that wraps together so many others that have haunted us for generations: Poverty, North-South power imbalance, Group marginalization, Community empowerment, to name a few.

The vulnerability to its impacts that we share is shaped by these underlying issues, which are all too familiar. To be actors in climate work, therefore, in part means being solution-oriented toward all the familiar barriers to social justice and human development.

Wealth in purpose

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I first grew interested in understanding poverty at a young age when my parents would bring me to the big town and I would see so many beggars. They puzzled me. In the small farming and fishing town where I lived, I never knew of a beggar; everyone had something to do,  somewhere to live, something to eat, and each had neighbors and friends and family who cared, no matter how much each struggled, at least as I remember it.

Fast forward three decades and I am still obsessed by the idea of poverty. While, in my youth, poverty was an idea easily represented by  pointing out beggars, in my adulthood, I have come to understand it to be an idea that is much more complex and even more wide-reaching.

It is a reliable proxy for the many -isms that plague us, its multiple dimensions made quite clear to me in the graduate thesis I wrote. It is a painful reminder, a relic that reflects as it tethers us to the absolute injustice of the past. It is a pox not only on life as it is lived, but also on the human spirit as it finds its way and its voice.

No one dreams to be poor, but many among us accept it as a fact of our life. No one thinks it unsolvable, but many among us toss our hands high in the air in the throes of forced surrender.

I am driven to passionate action by it. I am driven to the ends of my stamina by the plausibility of mitigating it. I am driven to dream ceaselessly. I dream. I dream. I dream.

Poverty is an underlying force behind the disproportionate burden of climate change and health disparities faced by some groups. That these three are the results of how we treat each other is perverse and fundamentally inhumane. If we are anti-poverty, it isn’t just classism, gender inequality, and racism that we should fight against, but also the antipathy for at-risk and vulnerable populations. We cannot go on depriving millions of the health equity and climate resilience required in modern life. It is inhumane, immoral, to assign vulnerable communities the role of being the first to die, in greater numbers, and more often.

Music behind post-Haiyan Philippine reconstruction

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This holiday season and well into the new year, especially if you’re in Southern California, please check out our benefit concert series. First in series is ‘Concert by the Sea’ at Seabridge Marina, Oxnard, CA on Dec 21, 11am-6pm.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7DpPGW4FOTxNFZ4SmdSWUc5elU/edit?usp=sharing

Climate solutions on the cheap: Climate change work unbound by climate finance

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Climate resilience work is:
1) anti-poverty work. It is community development that values broader community interests, that values the environmental context and the community’s welfare;

2) health disparity reduction that accounts for the vulnerability of the population to the negative health effects of severe weather;

3) community advocacy that promotes the empowerment of communities to overcome the challenge of a warming climate to survivability;

4) human development that promotes the self-determination of communities in defining the problems that ail them and the solutions best suited to address those problems.

Framed as fundamentally about these, promoting climate resilience should be familiar work to those who currently do community work.

So why do our communities not claim their vital role in addressing climate change? Why do so many of us accept that climate resilience work is only for policy-makers and scientists who require major climate finance? The answer has many aspects, many of which are predicated on our shared lack of belief in our own ideas and our paired values with positivism in terms of what counts as knowledge and professional perspective.

As I read climate change studies and as my team and I explore local manifestations of the problem in a rural community in Southern California, I am often overwhelmed by the magnitude of the climate problem and the conventional solutions to it. What helps me persevere is the very thing that led me to this work in the first place: anti-poverty work.

Poverty is a critical social problem, more now in the U.S. than in recent years, and definitely an intractable one in the Philippines. I began my undergraduate and capped my graduate studies with my own ideas on anti-poverty work, and one lesson I found is that poverty is too big when perceived as a whole. To address it, poverty needs to be broken down into its smaller bits. We need to do the same with climate change: break it down into smaller bits. The tool with which to define these smaller bits is you, the reader, and the commitment you have to doing something about it in your own way based on your own understanding of the inherent solutions in your personal experience of climate change.

Community workers and individual community members are vital actors in addressing climate change just as they are also key in addressing health disparities and poverty. The growing recognition of the importance of community engagement in climate resilience is deepened by the notion that, like health disparities and poverty, climate change has social determinants.

I increasingly fundamentally view climate resilience as anti-poverty work, and that climate finance does not have to be a barrier to it. Big solutions are not the only relevant solutions. Expensive solutions are not the only effective solutions. Affordable community-driven and community-defined solutions are relevant and could be effective solutions, too.

The Limits of Climate Finance

If we subject the health of the planet and the survivability of life on it to cost-benefit analysis and a ROI framework, instead of a more integrated analysis of how we are all networked, then you end up with the financialization of a genuinely collectivist enterprise designed to produce a social good. While the role of finance cannot be dismissed or avoided, its super-sized role in climate resilience could be scaled down. Climate finance as we know it does not have to be the context of our choices. We cannot let it for it has the potential of corroding them. Besides, climate finance has to set right its own backyard first.

The current climate finance system has many complex moving parts whose interaction leads to the following unresolved issues:

1). Competing rationales on the source and direction of climate finance funds: There remains a debate on whether funds should come from North and flow toward the South, since the developed world has primarily been responsible for the bulk of the anthropogenic causes to climate change, or if funds should come from the South, itself;

2). Prioritization of competing uses of funds: There are competing interests that pit mitigation and adaptation against each other — subjecting climate resilience work to an ‘either/or’, instead of a ‘both/and’ framework — which in turn turns our view of reducing emissions through deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) as an ancillary activity, as opposed to a complementary component of an integrated strategy; and

3). Limited coordination among stakeholder sectors: There are multiple funder stakeholder sectors like carbon finance, development banks, private capital, and public finance that do not necessarily coordinate well, especially in the use of their respective funding instruments, e.g., debt, equity, grants.

This complexity leads to a tremendously drawn-out and highly-technical (to be read “inaccessible to most people”) process of analysis, planning, and pre-development work that, by nature, overestimates the value of professional actors and underestimates that of community stakeholders. Affected communities are relegated to being beneficiaries when it is the engagement of these same communities that often is ultimately the most vital to the sustainability of climate adaptation and mitigation efforts.

The net effect is a commodification, privatization and financialization of climate resilience work that hollows out the collectivism inherent in it, and that limits the pool of possibilities because of an exclusively high finance framework. Ordinary individuals, families and communities whose engagement is vital are pushed aside for lack of technical know-how, when in fact they should be valued instead for their potential as networked sources of cost-effective, innovative, and alternative local interventions.

For climate finance to be more responsive, we, together with conventional actors, should focus on coordination and ‘meaningful stakeholder engagement’ across sectors to guard against the financialization of climate resilience work. We should aim to link the grass roots with the grass tops.

For climate solutions to be unbound by the parameters of high finance, we need to further engage local communities to play a role in the mitigation of and adaptation to the local effects of climate change. We all need to define the problem based on our experience with it and derive solutions directly from that experience.

Just as local communities have contributed to the practice of poverty alleviation and population health, communities also have a lot to offer in climate resilience by way of cost-effective and sustainable solutions. Unlocking these community-defined solutions is the mission of my team, and I hope it also becomes that of at least one reader who agrees with the broad argument I attempted to lay out here.

Sometimes the spirit understands what the mind cannot, so the two must work together

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I view the human spirit and, therefore spirituality, as a thing that is not exclusively about one’s relationship with a god. I view it as that plus a sense of relatedness to everyone (all living things) and everything (cosmos), as the positive essence in each of us. Because of this, I am able to see the value of the individual within the context of the value of everyone and everything — “both/and,” not “either/or.”

My team and I have been building a program — Goodbranch Vergara (check us out on facebook) — for a while now to address a complex problem that no one individual could possibly thoroughly understand. The stakes are high; we have invested time and money into our work, so instead of surrendering to the magnitude of the problem, we persevere driven by a belief that our current understanding and our unique perspective on the solutions are good enough for us to keep going. The limits of our rational understanding is not a barrier. The intuitive understanding that we cannot put into words does not constitute a problem. Both, together, are good enough starting points for us to continue sorting out our contribution to a solution.

My epiphany comes from understanding that we need to awaken the mind AND the spirit, jointly. To just focus on rationality is flawed; post-modern thought looks at positivism as naive for not being more integrative in its thinking. There are alternative ways of knowing that are equally worthwhile, and more importantly, more effective in asserting our shared humanity for we are NOT computing machines who must exist and relate to the world only with logical reasoning.

It is possible to be analytical without being empirical. We can be imaginative, creative, and intuitive. We can persevere despite the odds. There is value in being these for to be internally-motivated to act even when the there is so much that is unknown, and perhaps unknowable, is what an ailing world requires. What makes us more fully human is expressing and realizing the authentic dreams we each have, especially when these dreams are about how to best serve others.

Thus, the back story of my epiphany –“Sometimes the spirit understands what the mind cannot, so the two must work together” — is the understanding that we need to awaken both the mind and the spirit; we need to awaken our competence for critical, original thought and our ability to express our positive self who I believe is fundamentally a caring, conscientious, unselfish being.

Climate change and South-South cooperation

For those interested in finding out how the “developing world” works to address climate change, I found this great website that tracks South-South cooperation. It is a service of teh UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

http://www.unep.org/south-south-cooperation/