Years of Living Dangerously Recap: Episode 7, Revolt, Rebuild, Renew

This week, Jessica Alba looked at an Environmental Defense Fund program bringing environmental management to corporate America, an arena rife with potential for change. Chris Hayes took the A train to visit with another community devastated by Hurricane Sandy, the Far Rockaways in New York City. Thomas Friedman went digging into the roots of the Arab Spring in Egypt and found the story taking him in a direction he hadn’t anticipated: to Kansas.

Stories of the Week

Climate Corps

Every summer since 2008, around 100 business school students embed at sites around the US for ten weeks to help corporate America tackle energy efficiency and sustainability management. So far, the Climate Corps program has helped each organization save an average of $1 million. Jessica Alba, herself a business owner with her Honest line of home and personal care products, has a vested interest in such work.

Climate Corps student Brendan Edgerton advised Office Depot on ways to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030. They use about 35 million square feet of well-lit warehouse space in which over 20 million orders per year are processed with the help of Kiva robots. Edgerton advised to dim the lights and noted that the robots’ tracks could be better laid out and coordinated with moving belts. Given the volume, even little changes can add up to big savings – $6 million over three years.

Those hardest hit by climate change now are the bellwethers of the future. We can learn from the crises we’ve seen so far - or not - but over time, it is far less likely that those crises will fade to memory without new ones to take their place.

Another Corps member, Jenise Young, went to Texas Southern University, a school just getting started with sustainability initiatives. There, she raised awareness about the importance of recycling, a basic, necessary step. (Recycling five aluminum cans saves enough energy to power a laptop computer for 24 straight hours, and Americans throw out more than 30 billion cans per year!) While her audience is enthusiastic, after one meeting, Young points out a trash can filled with cans and plastic bottles next to a nearly empty recycling bin. Getting people to put waste in the right receptacles will take some time.

Scott Miller worked with Caesar’s Entertainment Corporation in Las Vegas to identify opportunities in energy and water management while keeping the bright lights and splashy pools of Vegas going. He suggests that Caesar’s add weather vane sensors to the tops of buildings; on windy days, the sensors could signal fountains to reduce their force and height – sending precious water out into the parched desert air. And switching to LED bulbs for those big light displays would use 60 percent less energy and save more than $350,000 annually.

Over the Edge

We’ve followed the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy before on Years of Living: in New Jersey, where homeowners agonized over rebuilding their homes, and in Staten Island, where the brutal realities of storm surge have yet to move the needle on the US politics of climate change. This week, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes went to see folks flooded out of New York’s low-income community in Far Rockaway.

Hayes profiles the Lawrences, a family living without power and heat for months. Before Sandy, three of the four adults in the family were working in the service industry (at a mall and a nursing home). The three subsequently lost their jobs after the storm while public transit was shut down and people using services were moved away. (Keep in mind that the service economy accounts for some 4 out of 5 US jobs at present; this problem could easily play out in places other than Far Rockaway.)

Dian Allen was among thousands trying to secure FEMA-paid housing for her family after Sandy. While NYC-area hotels were enlisted to help out, the more than 6,000 people in need far outnumbered available rooms and spaces. It takes months for Allen to get a room; the family stays with different friends as they wait. Since her landlord is raising the rent on her old place after rebuilding, she won’t be able to afford to move back. Allen’s family ends up moving to a subsidized apartment far from their former home in the Rockaways.

Far Rockaway’s experience with Sandy illustrates a problem likely to challenge coastal cities worldwide amidst rising sea levels: those who struggle to make ends meet and afford their homes before such disasters are terribly vulnerable to the aftermath of disasters. When you don’t have substantial savings, friends or family with large homes to accommodate you for extended periods or large amounts of credit waiting to be charged until you get back on your feet, storm impacts just keep on coming, cascading, long after the waters have physically receded.

Climate Wars

Did you know that Kansas is the number one wheat producing state in the US, and is one of the supply sources for a lot of Egypt’s flour? So the past few years’ drought, which (according to the show) the USDA has declared the biggest agricultural disaster in 50 years, hasn’t only impacted Kansas ranchers and the American economy. It’s also played a part in global politics.

New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman explains in this continuation of Episode 1's story. In 2010, droughts in Kansas, China, Russia and the Ukraine decimated wheat crops. For Egypt, the biggest blow came with Russia’s drought, because Russia is their biggest wheat supplier; in response to that drought, Vladimir Putin banned grain exports, resulting in price spikes for wheat and ultimately, bread. Food shortages were a driver of the Arab Spring.

"We shouldn’t have to go through this. It’s not our fault, and there’s no help." – Dian Allen

Looking ahead for future wheat shortages, Oxford University climatologist Myles Allen confirmed that there is a strong link between rising temperatures and heat waves. The Earth’s temperature has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution, which has made heat waves three times more likely to occur. By the end of the century, Allen says that Earth could warm by another nine degrees Fahrenheit, which would decimate global crop outputs by 25 percent.

Market expert Jeremy Grantham tells Friedman that climate change isn’t causing an economic bubble, but a food problem only likely to escalate and worsen. Food shortages could destabilize already-poor countries, fomenting more revolutions, unsettling global politics in unpredictable ways. After all, Grantham points out, if you’re spending 30 percent of your income on food and energy and in a matter of four or five years, prices double, then triple, then quadruple on you, what would you do? Desperate people take to the streets.

Those hardest hit by climate change now are the bellwethers of the future. We can learn from the crises we’ve seen so far - or not - but over time, it is far less likely that those crises will fade to memory without new ones to take their place.

Voices from Episode 7

  • “Bread and politics is one issue, not two issues. Bread is our life in Egypt.” – Ahmed Maher, Egyptian youth leader, on “Bread! Freedom! Social Justice!” chant popular during Egyptian protests in 2011
  • “We’re only a severe drought or two away from the near-collapse of Egypt. This is our last, best chance; climate change dominates everything. All the rest is in vain unless you get climate change right.” – Jeremy Grantham, analyst
  • “Three months after Sandy, over 7,000 were still without power. Some didn’t even have heat during a frigid winter. And for many, that was just the beginning of a cascade of problems.” – Chris Hayes, MSNBC correspondent
  • "We shouldn’t have to go through this. It’s not our fault, and there’s no help." – Dian Allen, Far Rockaways, NYC resident

To Take Action and Learn More

To learn more about food security and food access, please see “Food Security and Food Access” on Sustainable Table.

For further reading on food commodities pricing, please see our review of Frederick Kaufman’s Bet the Farm.

To learn more about energy efficiency and ways to save money (inspiration for CSR professionals?) please see our “Meet the Nexus” guide with how-tos and tips.

To do one thing about carbon pollution this week, check out Voces: Latino Voices in Action via the Years of Living Dangerously site.

To discuss the series on social media, join us in conversation with @YearsofLiving on Instagram, @YEARSofLiving on Twitter or @YearsofLiving on Facebook using #YEARSproject.

Check out our previous Years of Living Dangerously recaps:


Episode 2, The End of the Woods

Episode 3, The Surge

Episode 4, Ice and Brimstone

Episode 5, True Colors

Episode 6, Winds of Change

Episode 7, Revolt, Rebuild, Renew

Episode 8, A Dangerous Future

Episode 9, Moving a Mountain