The Earth is beginning to heave under the strain of overpopulation, war and famine. According to The United Nations, the ever growing global human population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. This will not only put increasing pressure on natural resources such as food and water that are essential to life, but will also increase demand for everyday necessities such as energy, housing and jobs, to name a few. As the world’s population — and the cities that support and accomodate this populace — continue to expand, the natural world is coming under increased strain. Added to this is the pressure of climate change impacts, which are becoming glaringly apparent everywhere we look.
The Nature Conservancy recently released a report, The Biggest Environmental Challenges of 2017, which shares perspectives from global leaders on the most pressing issues facing people and the planet.
Some of the key challenges identified in the report include:
Climate Change — this needs to be addressed before it’s too late.
Sustainable Food Production — how do we feed a growing population without clearing natural areas to expand existing agriculture or expand already overfished fisheries?
Sustainable Cities — we need to create sustainable cities that are self-sufficient, which do not overburden surrounding land and water ecosystems that serve as vital life support systems for both wildlife and human life.
While this may seem like a doom and gloom scenario, Mark Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, is optimistic that these challenges can be overcome with creative, nature-based solutions.
“At The Nature Conservancy, we believe nature-based solutions can play an important role in addressing these big challenges. The road ahead won’t be easy,” cautions Tercek, “but by investing in nature, we think we can find common-ground solutions that are good for biodiversity, good for the economy and good for people.”
Population growth will certainly exacerbate these problems, yet it can be argued that our planet has sufficient resources for everyone, but these resources are poorly managed, and in many cases squandered, with little regard for the needs of others or the future. This is largely the result of a money-based rather than resource-based economy, where saving costs and making profits is the key driver behind unsustainable practices. But some enterprises are moving away from the traditional bottom line approach that focuses exclusively on financial performance, opting for the triple bottom line approach, which measures their social, environmental (or ecological) and financial performance instead, in an effort to improve their sustainability performance.
For social entrepreneurs, these challenges present fantastic opportunities to come up with creative solutions to address these problems for the benefit of humanity, while at the same time generating profits. Below are some of the measures the report proposes we take to address these challenges, as well as some examples of innovative solutions that social entrepreneurs have come up with to tackle the environmental and social issues associated with some of these challenges.
Related: Sustainability as a Model for Environmental and Social Entrepreneurship
Opt for Clean Energy
It is imperative that we tackle climate change head-on by committing to a low-carbon future and transition away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable sources of energy.
Tesla, a technology and design company with a focus on energy innovation, is on a mission to do just that. From state of the art electronic cars that do not compromise looks, power or quality for carbon-free motoring, to solar roof tiles and power banks that supply a home with energy from the sun, Tesla offers clean energy solutions for motoring and electricity supply that will save motorists and homeowners thousands of dollars in fuel and/or energy costs after the initial purchase.
Ned Tozun, together with his partner Sam Goldman, of d.light solar is another example of a social entrepreneur in the energy space who is on a mission to change lives by bringing safe, affordable lighting and clean solar power to communities that do not currently have access to energy. Look out for our podcast interview with Ned in May.
Acknowledge Nature’s Role in Addressing Climate Change
The report also suggests that we maximize the use of nature for addressing climate change and for mitigating the impacts of climate change. For example, reforestation projects can play an important role in absorbing carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, while restoring natural buffer zones such as wetlands and coastal zones can protect ecosystems and people from the impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise and storm surges.
When it comes to reforestation, we can all do our bit by planting trees in our own backyard, school or community. Felix Finkbeiner is a social entrepreneur who not only did just that at the tender age of nine, but in the ten years since planting his first tree, also founded the environmental group Plant-for-the-Planet, which in partnership with the United Nation’s Billion Tree campaign has planted more than 14 billion trees across 130 nations. The group has since upped the stakes, setting a new tree planting goal of one trillion trees.
Improve Global Fisheries Management
Our oceans are over-exploited, and as a result fish stocks have drastically declined. Yet for many people around the world, seafood is a staple diet and often the only source of protein. With fish stocks declining, the livelihoods and staple food source of people who depend on it is in jeopardy. It is therefore essential that we manage fisheries appropriately to ensure these stocks remain viable and this vital source of food remains sustainable.
Dr Alasdair Harris of Blue Ventures, who we interviewed in the 6th edition of Change Creator Magazine, recently won a social entrepreneur award for his conservation work with coastal communities, aimed at restoring marine biodiversity and fisheries in overfished coastal waters. Blue Ventures uses a tempory closure model that allows stocks to recover, which ultimately benefits conservation and the communities that depend on fisheries for their livelihoods and food.
Urchinomics has a truly innovative solution that addresses both issues above, as well as other environmental and social issues. The company plans to harvest invader sea urchins, feed them up so they meet the high standards demanded by this luxury seafood market, then sell them to high-end restaurants. By doing so, they hope to eradicate invasive urchins that are decimating kelp beds worldwide so that affected kelp beds can recover.
As these kelp forests provide essential ecosystem services, including absorbing carbon dioxide, protecting coastal communities from storm surges, and providing habitat for commercial fish and other marine species, removing the urchins will not only provide a sustainable source of seafood, but will also allow biodiversity to return so that the kelp beds can continue to offer these services. Furthermore, the project will offer exciting business opportunities and employment to rural coastal communities where fisheries have been devastated by urchins or environmental disasters, such as the tsunami that ravaged a fishing community in Japan.
Expand Sustainable Agricultural Practices
With population growth and climate change impacts such as drought and floods, together with war and famine being on the increase, food security is one of the greatest challenges humankind is faced with. How do we balance the need for increased food production while preventing deforestation, maintaining healthy ecosystems and limiting contamination of freshwater bodies and our oceans at the same time? Some obvious solutions include moving away from monoculture and pesticide use and opting for more organic forms of agriculture. It also requires some thinking outside the box, moving towards innovative, unconventional approaches to food production that are healthier and greener, and that simply make ecological sense.
Aquaponics is one ecologically sound solution that offers opportunities for individuals, communities and commercial farming ventures to produce healthy organic food (fruit and vegetables as well as protein in the form of fish) by following basic ecological principals. It also offers opportunities for social entrepreneurs. For example, some have developed innovative aquaponics kits to enable households to grow their own food right in their kitchen, while in South Africa, a 13-year old girl has launched a successful aquaponics business that grows food commercially while she attends school!
YouTube video of 13-year old’s successful aquaponics business
Urban rooftop farms and vertical gardens are other creative ways of maximizing space for food production without clearing more natural land for agriculture. For the latter, hydroponics is both a space and water saving method of growing organic vegetables in an indoor urban environment and lends itself to vertical farming. Listen to our interview with social entrepreneur, Tinia Pina, Founder and CEO of Re-Nuble, a socially minded organics-to-energy enterprise that converts food waste into an organic fertilizer as a byproduct of energy produced during the biodigestion process.
YouTube video on Rooftop Farm in New York
YouTube video on Vertical Farming
Create Sustainable Cities
Currently 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas, and according to The United Nations, this figure is expected to rise to 66% by 2050. To accommodate the needs of this growing urban population, cities need to be developed with sustainability in mind. ReGen Villages has taken up the challenge. The company recently launched a pioneer development project that will feature integrated and resilient residential areas that are self-sufficient, providing the energy and food needs for the communities that live there. The first ReGen Village pilot community will be built in Almere, Netherlands, and thereafter the company plans to expand the project across Northern Europe.
YouTube video of ReGen Village concept
When Life Gives you Lemons, Make Lemonade
Yes, the world is facing some mammoth challenges right now, but as we can see, necessity is the mother of invention. These challenges present wonderful business opportunities for social entrepreneurs with passion and drive to literally take up the challenge for the greater good of the planet.
Related: Sustainability as a Model for Environmental and Social Entrepreneurship