Beahrs ELP Blog

The social relations of environmental leadership

by Christian Damholt, Denmark, ELP 2014
Written on July 14, 2014.

Damholt, Christian - Blog 1Is it fair to demand of the Afghan people that they engage in sustainability and how is it possible to mobilize hope for an environmentally sustainable future when you work with civil society organisations (CSOs) in Afghanistan? A young green leader, Aimal Khan, from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) delivers the answers.
I meet Aimal Khan, the national coordinator of GEF’s Small Grants Program, at a corner café on Euclid Avenue just outside the UC Berkeley campus. The street, Euclid, named after the Egyptian-Greek mathematician, seems like the right setting for the interview. Even though Aimal has a calm voice and he is not a tall man, his appearance is loud and his walk is determined. He tells me that the name Aimal means “sincere”.

What is the GEF’s Small Grants Program and what do you do as National Coordinator?
“So the Small Grants Program started in 1992 and is a global program under GEF. The main focus of the program is to work with CSOs. The direct involvement of the grass root people is the reason behind the success of the program. The CSO comes up [with] their own proposals based on the environmental problems that they face. Here we seek innovative approaches as responses to the problems. We are not supporting business as usual. “

You say that the GEF demands innovations in the projects. However, the Afghan people have been through so many troubles the last decades. Do you think it is fair to demand innovation when there is really no business as usual?
“The Small Grants Program is only a tiny amount in the bigger picture. And if there is no innovation or if projects are not implemented in a different way we won’t be able to build sustainable projects.”

“There are many problems in Afghanistan, and there are huge projects and grants addressing some of these. In the Small Grants Program we want to show that we can implement successful models, which can be up-scaled. The Afghan people are very poor. But the program will help people with livelihood opportunities in ways that are more sustainable. 93% of all conflicts in Afghanistan are environment related and people live in resource scarcity. We need an innovative approach also at the local level in the communities. These communities will be the first beneficiaries of this program.”

This sounds almost too good, but what are the biggest obstacles that you face in your work?
“The CSOs were not involved before and didn’t have any support. The Small Grants Program is the first opportunity for them. Now they can come up with their own problems, learn and share their experiences with other organisations. But there is a capacity gap. Our greatest success so far is to enhance the capacity of civil society organisations. The greatest project is one where disabled women were trained to produce cotton bags as a substitute [for] plastic bags and have done this very successfully. The project is now being replicated elsewhere”.

What do you feel when you think of this project?
“I really feel proud. And we actually have an old tradition of cotton bags. It was a part of our culture. I remember my father used cotton bags and we brought our stuff in these bags. I hope we can reintroduce this culture. The innovative part is to revitalise something, which we have lost. And maybe the government someday will ban plastic bags.”

I am quite amazed by your optimism. International rapports paint a very dark picture of the development in Afghanistan. How do you mobilize hope for a more social and environmentally sustainable future in this desert of despair?
“The optimism comes from believing that we, by supporting CSOs in the projects, are building a kind of network for the future of Afghanistan. People will learn and share their experiences. The CSOs will become the stewards of the environment in Afghanistan. And it will also contribute to peace. We are planting something for the future.“

You seem to focus only on the positive things? Don’t you neglect the some of the big, macro problems of Afghanistan?
“Peace is key in Afghanistan. It means that we will have everything. The projects will contribute to both wealth and peace. Our initiatives will help and are very important. Again, the problems revolve around the issues of environment and resources.”

It seems to me as if your strategy is to focus on the concrete projects as a stepping stone to a more optimistic vision of the future rather than thinking too much about the huge problems mentioned?
“The macro issues that you mentioned are real, but here our focus is that we really should work hard and help the CSOs to build capacity. If we always think of these macro issues I don’t think it would be good for our work with the projects. But naturally we consider the risk of, for example, the security situation and seek to minimize these risks.”

Do you have an idol in terms of vision and courage?
“There is my father. He is a forest specialist. He has been the director general of forests in Afghanistan for many years. And the way he works and all his achievements. Wow. He has been a part of the establishment of a natural park in Afghanistan. It is a big park. And when I look at his work I feel proud.“

What is his biggest strength, which we can learn from?
“His biggest strength is his knowledge. He is the real forester. Whenever there was a marriage, I have been told that my father always brought two trees as a gift for the couple, which could be planted as a memory of their great day. And he was good at conflict resolution too. There was a big conflict in Badakhshan [province in Afghanistan]. Here the trees could serve as a memory of the resolution.”

Not all Afghans have a father like that – what can they do? I know that is an unfair question…
“No, some people don’t have a father they can be proud of like me. I feel obliged to take responsibility and help other people. However, these people still shouldn’t lose courage. We are not our fathers. I am proud of him, but I too have to be someone else. I have my own potential. That is very important. So for others, I would say that self-capacity, honesty and dedication to work is very important.”

The whole interview took 58:02 min. and was conducted as a semi-structured interview. This means that it generally followed an interview guide, but was open, allowing for new issues to be brought up during the interview (cf. Kvale, 1996). Only the relevant part of the interview has been transcribed.

Kvale, Steinar (1996): Interviews: An introduction to qualitative research interviewing. London: Sage.

Human Centered Design: Workshop

by Jiawen Fang, China, ELP 2014
Written on July 21, 2014.

The synthesis and reflections of the workshop
I am very interested in creative design for city slums, or some ways out of urban poverty. The workshop on July 17th by really inspired me a lot. The workshop contained two parts. In the first part, faculty from gave us a brief, but important introduction about human centered design, including its definition, principles and processes. In the second part, we were provided a great chance to design a wallet in group work.

What is is a nonprofit design organization that works to empower the poor. They believe that by understanding and working alongside those in the greatest need, they can design solutions that create prosperity. Partnering with nonprofits, social enterprises, and foundations, practices human-centered design to solve some of the world’s most difficult problems.

Part 1: Introduction of Human Centered Design
Having done some design projects before, I found it really helpful and inspiring. Here are the summary of principles and process:

  • Get out there: go where your designs locate or somewhere you are crazy about.
  • Talk to extremes: the needs of the extremes decide how human centered your design is.
  • Understand and observe: be sure to pay equal attention to both reality and aspiration. Gather inspiration from unexpected places. Keep your eyes and your heart open.
  • Work with disciplines: cooperation between different fields.
  • Prototype early and often: problems will never emerge before design put into practice.
  • Consider the system: where people system, technical system and business system overlapped is where design thinking begins. See Fig. 1

jiawen 1

Stories (from the real world) → Insights → Opportunity Areas → Ideation → Idea Solutions (back to the real world)
Concrete → abstract → concrete

Part 2: Design a better wallet!
In the second part, everyone was asked to design a better wallet for their partner, and that’s where we experience the spirit of human centered design. First, we are allowed to sketch a few of our own ideas, then we tried to gain empathy by engaging our “users” through Q&A for basic information and specific stories for digging out the specific needs rooted deeply inside.

My partner, Myo Ko Ko, shared several stories with me about the trouble of leaving his wallet at home in the morning, especially when he changed his clothes. He said that it would be perfect if his wallet can ring as a reminder before he leaves for work. Based on his strong needs for the “wallet reminder,” I came up with the idea of inserting a mini alarm clock which is about the size of a coin in his wallet. This mini clock can remind him to bring his wallet as well as wake him up in the morning.

For me, I shared my stories about the inconvenience of not being allowed to bring my backpack into the museum, dining hall, or in any other special occasions. I have to hold my wallet, cell phone, passport and camera in my hands! Myo then suggested that we design a bag that can be folded into a very small piece and hidden inside a fold in the backpack. When we have to leave our backpack behind, we can pull the small bag out as a spare one.

I felt so excited about these two brilliant ideas, and meanwhile surprised about the importance and charm of the stories. By personal stories, we are able to put ourselves in users’ shoes and design from the perspective of them but with our design talent and intuition.

Connecting to my own project — the charm of story
I have been doing a project of revitalizing a slum surrounded by Peking University, Tsinghua University and Yuanmingyuan Park in Beijing. Our idea is to build a community-based enterprise where people can make creative handicrafts out of recycled materials. The community will be working as a factory including departments of designing, production, marketing and retailing. In this way, people in the community can have both a job for living, but also build a close relationship with their neighborhood. So far, we have finished the conceptual plan of this community (see Fig. 2), but the biggest challenge is that many people do not have the passion to build such a new community. Actually, we have done a survey in the community, but still felt we cannot really understand their real needs and definitely unable to design as a local guy.

The workshop let me realize the charm of storytelling by residents. When they tell a story to us to express their struggles as well as happiness, we actually walk into their life, even into their hearts. It is not only about learning more about their needs for a better design, but also about sharing the same feelings with them so that your design will be human and just like the organic part of their life. There is no need to facilitate or to motivate them deliberately, empathy happens naturally and works well.

Besides, the way and the attitude of listening to their stories is also important. When we design a wallet for our partner, we are equal like friends. However, when we did the survey in the community last year, some of our teammates did their job in a way of a leader of a charity, with empathy, but without equality. That is another reason why we receive so much negative feedback.

I think story telling is key to overcoming the challenges, and we are sure to go back to that slum to share stories with local residents.

jiawen 2

Join me in reducing our ecological footprints!

by Huyen Do Thi Thanh, Vietnam, ELP 2014
Written on July 21, 2014.

You might have known of many simple ways to help our planet and to reduce our ecological footprint, but have you ever actually practiced them? Have you ever asked yourself if you could do better than that? Below is my experience on taking simple actions to reduce my ecological footprint on our Earth.

Story 1. Avoid flushing on airplanes. The toilet on modern airplane uses a powerful vacuum to suck the content into a tank. “The energy used in one flush is enough for an economical car to run at least 10 kilometers.” This July, I took a long flight from Vietnam to USA to attend the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program at the University of California, Berkeley. Although I used the restroom right before boarding, I still couldn’t avoid flushing on the airplane. However, I was successful in most of my domestic flights.

Story 2. Use public transportation. Last Sunday, I decided to take a bus tour from West Oakland to Yosemite National Park, instead of a private tour with a car. It’s not only more economical but also reduces my biological footprint. Of course it’s not as flexible as using a private car but I am happy that I am doing some right thing for our Earth. Why don’t you try public transportation to go to work, especially in the US?!

Story 3. Reuse water bottles. On my first day in US this July, the ELP’s board gave each of us one metal bottle and one metal cup. In the beginning, I was a bit hesitant to use the bottle because I have to clean it at the end of each day or before refilling. It took me six or seven days before I could really get used to cleaning the water bottle every day and skip using plastic water bottles. Now, I am totally comfortable carrying my metal bottle anywhere I go. Isn’t it worth trying?!

Story 4. Use shopping bags. In Berkeley, you have to pay ten cents for each paper bag when shopping. And it’s quite easy to practice this as I can save some money. But in Vietnam, it’s not that easy. You are offered to use as many plastic bags as you need for free, at any shop or market. It took me several months to get use to bringing my own shopping bags when shopping. I finally made it.

Story 6. Say no to endangered wildlife products. I visited a leather factory in Thailand last March. The factory produces a huge collection of wallets, belts, handbags, backpacks, hats, clothes and other outfits from cow, sheep and even endangered wildlife skins such as elephants, crocodiles, pythons and snakes. I was so interested in a wallet. It’s not too expensive and I can afford it, but then I learned that the wallet is made from elephant skin. The factory owner said that it’s legal because it’s made from skin of a naturally dead elephant. How can I believe that? Also, as I am working on wildlife education for Wildlife At Risk (WAR), how can I use a wallet that is made from elephant skins, even though it’s legal? I just picked another sexy wallet that has nothing to do with wildlife.

Changing a behavior is not easy at all. But if care, you can make it. I believe that you also have your own stories. Why not share it here to show how you have reduced your ecological footprint and live more friendly to our Earth?!

DSC_5886-hatlongbay-leftcredit_Huyen (Custom)

Palaeoecology and Resilience: the future of ecosystem management

by Claudia Havranek, United Kingdom, ELP 2014
Written on August 7, 2014.

In an environment working alongside people for 35 different countries, all with different expertise, you become aware of different ways of looking at a problem. It’s safe to say in an environmental program, everyone is looking at the same problem: how to better our changing environment. The approaches and specialties of each person however vary greatly, and it was after a networking event, after we had been shooed out of the Blum Center and the lights had been switched off, palaeoecology was discussed.

Palaeoecology, where data is taken from fossils to reconstruct previous ecosystems may be the key to many current ecological problems. From the palaeodata, the idea of resilience has taken form in ecology: from a concept to actual data, and it may provide a missing link in ecological management strategies.

Resilience is not a new idea to ecology. Holling first introduced the concept of resilience in ecology in 1973, however several definitions have since been published. There are two distinct definitions: ecological resilience and engineering resilience. Ecological resilience is the resistance of a system to perturbation without changing structure or function. Engineering resilience is the recovery of a system to equilibrium following perturbation. Together, these definitions allow the resilience of an ecosystem to be used in interpretation of ecosystem responses to changing conditions, and switches between alternative stable states.

The concept of resilience provides a well-theorized area of study, which has (and will continue to be) furthered through palaeoecology. There is some data, in fact, to suggest that ecosystem management should focus on resilience, and recognize alternative stable states in ecosystems over a centennial and millennial time frame, through the use of palaeodata.

One problem in the study of resilience of ecosystems to environmental change is a lack of long-term data sets. Most conservation strategies currently rely on neo-ecological data sets spanning up to 50 years, however palaeodata may extend beyond this, to identify the longer scale processes shaping ecosystems. Palaeoecology involves studying past ecosystems and environmental conditions, through the use of proxies (e.g. fossil pollen time-series). Previous environments may be reconstructed, using multi-proxy and multi-core data to identify correlations over time between ecosystem changes and potential drivers of change.

Through palaeodata, the processes behind ecosystem resilience may be better understood. As such, palaeodata has been used to break the assumption of biotic equilibrium responses in ecosystems, as well as improving understanding of early warning signals, which occur before critical shifts in the state of an ecosystem. Palaeodata reveals that ecosystems move between alternative stable states, surpassing critical thresholds, and ecosystems may show hysteresis.

This theory of resilience, backed up by palaeodata, has several key implications for conservation. Firstly, the identification of early warning signals may be used to predict catastrophic shifts, and result in the implementation of appropriate management strategies. Secondly, restoration projects can be guided by the level of ecosystem change needed for a reversion to a previous state, especially in ecosystems exhibiting hysteresis, where restoration may be challenging. Thirdly, conservation efforts may focus on improving resilience, through identifying traits of resilience, rather than specific states.

The Erhai lake-catchment system in southwest China provides an example of how palaeodata may be used to inform current management techniques. Proxy data over 3000 years show that restoration to an undisturbed pre-1400 YBP state is unachievable within human timescales, due to the exhibition of hysteresis. Risk of further degradation however is low, as the system is highly resilient.

Palaeoecology and the concept of resilience present a method and a concept that are currently vastly underutilized in ecosystem management. Understanding the theory of ecosystem responses to perturbation, and how this may be a result of the resilience of a system, has and will continue to be furthered through palaeodata. Palaeoecology can reveal long-term processes and history important to current ecosystems, and so should be utilized more in the future, alongside neo-ecology, to inform conservation decisions.

Brain Booster

by Dr. Gbolagade Lameed, Nigeria, ELP 2014
Written on July 19, 2014.

Coming to UC Berkeley for Beahrs ELP is the greatest fantasy that I have ever experienced in my life and this sends me to another tutelage of academic mind arrest. Each class or session becomes a challenge because each participant has to live up to a standard academically to understand and practice in the class. The challenge of becoming a reliable leader is now a reality to me because onto whom much is given, much is expected.

To become a stunt leader in environmental management, the lecture delivered on Environmental Policy was a major catalyst that gave me more insight into the need to balance geometric human desire and population explosion with arithmetic growth of natural resources. If the whole world is truly seeking peace and harmony, then we must live our life not in disparity with the God-given natural resources by seeking a balance between the use and growth, without which human survival is in jeopardy. The lecture on Resource Policy by J. Keith Gilless was also a mind booster and further gave me more insight on the World Forest Economy and importance of Gross Domestic Product for both developed and developing countries alike. The world leadership problems and challenges facing the present and past leaders were diagnosed in the lectures on Collaborative Leadership for Sustainable Change by Susan Carpenter. This problem cannot be understood perfectly without both the electorate and elect understanding the personality of whom they are to put in the position of power. This also goes for individuals in different facets of endeavors. Without having a deep understanding of personal temperament and capability to manage positions or professions, then such will always commit mistakes or be found imperfect, not capable and unfulfilled. Another lesson learned is from the lecture by, which made me be creative and think deeper to bring something out of nothing when one is faced with the needs and challenges of life. The motivational talk of Dr. Sirolli was thought provoking and further referred me to the commoners or ideology of the “bottom up approach.” There are more inbuilt experiences that I have gained and just a few sentences cannot tell it all, but adaptation of the knowledge and implementation in my primary place of assignment to fulfill the highest goal of being a GOOD LEADER will be a legacy to achieve.

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