Rachel Carson wrote in her overwhelmingly influential book Silent Spring that “time is the essential ingredient, but in the modern world there is no time”. In the fight against climate change, time is not humanity’s friend. Efforts to live more sustainably and learn about the impacts that we as the human race are having on the world has never been more important. With terrifying facts like the 2018 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reporting that by 2030 we will be facing irreversible climate change impacts, it is easy to feel hopeless and cynical about the way the world is heading. However, there are astonishingly creative efforts being made to try to save everything that can still be saved – including ourselves. Some of these efforts are being driven by Bill Toone and his wife Sunni Black who are beacons of hope in an otherwise cloudy future.
As the founders of ECOLIFE Conservation, Toone and Black are continuously working towards their mission to “protect wildlife, natural resources, and the people that depend on them.” With the opportunity to be able to meet them in person, it is impossible not to be inspired by their enthusiasm and utter passion towards this critical cause. Toone himself has a rich history in conservation in California who in collaboration with the Zoological Society of San Diego, co-led the recovery of the California condor, the largest North American land bird. He is extremely humble, but quite frankly, the condor would not be thriving in California without his efforts. Black has worked on noble conservation efforts as well, previously working at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. The two make an unstoppable pair, which is clearly demonstrated by ECOLIFE’s success in a variety of conservation efforts.
Global food systems are a focus of ECOLIFE’s efforts. Food systems include all the processes it takes to feed a population, involving production, processing, transport and production. Inefficient and dangerous food systems link the loss of human lives and wildlife extinction. Growing food with pesticides and destroying untouched land leads to habitat loss and extinction of wildlife in areas of agriculture, which covers half of the world’s habitable land. This regional land infertility and drought can create limited access to quality food and nutrition, leading to human deaths. This correlation between wildlife and human deaths is clear to see.
Food systems don’t only involve growing food, but also cooking it. One third of the world’s population cooks over a fire, which causes severe daily smoke inhalation. Toone and Black have reported to the San Diego Voyager that this is “the equivalent of smoking 400 cigarettes a day” and indoor cooking fires cause “about 4 million deaths a year”. In addition to human mortality, cooking fires cause deforestation with the massive amount of wood needed to fuel all of these fires, further contributing to habitat loss and wildlife extinction.
With the problem of growing and cooking food apparent, Toone and Black set out to come up with various creative solutions. Aquaponics offered an appealing solution: sustainable agriculture with aquaponics allows produce to be grown with 90% less land and water according to ECOLIFE. Quite literally taking apart the term, “aqua” refers to aquaculture – raising fish in a controlled environment – and “ponics” is Latin for “to work” and refers to the hydroponics aspect of growing plants in water with added nutrients. So, aquaponics is putting fish to work and mirrors a natural ecosystem in many ways. Using the waste product of fish as food for bacteria to be converted into fertilizer for plants, plants can prosper and return the water in a clean form to the fish.
With habitat loss being a major driver of extinction, aquaponics can help mediate the problems posed by the destruction of land for agriculture. Additionally, without the need to use harmful pesticides and other chemicals, this form of sustainable agriculture allows for the growth of safer food. Aquaponics is a closed-loop system which prevents runoff – when there is more water than soil can absorb – and opens the door to feed more people in growing populations as well as reduce land and water use.
ECOLIFE is working to bring aquaponics into communities, classrooms, and homes. They have a kit that can be purchased as a way to grow plants in your own home easily and in an eco-friendly way from their website. There is also an Aquaponics Innovation Center in San Diego which allows visitors to learn more about the engineering of aquaponics and to see it on a larger scale. With over 750 kits donated to schools across the United States, more than 124,000 students are able to engage with these systems and learn more about aquaponics and sustainable agriculture. This is inevitably a positive impact for students and an opportunity for them to teach others.
This aquaponics initiative has mostly been promoted within the United States and is only one of the many ongoing projects of the ECOLIFE organization. In Mexico, the main ECOLIFE initiative employs locals in the community to build “Patsari” stoves. “Patsari” in Mexico’s indigenous Purépecha language means “caretaker”. Therefore these stoves offer an alternative solution to the inefficient food systems that are causing environmental devastation due to indoor cooking fires. An efficient combustion chamber sits in the middle of sturdy, brick-walled stoves, making the home environment safer for children. An amazing part of the work that ECOLIFE has done and continues to do in Mexico is making these stoves culturally appropriate by working with locals to identify and fulfill their needs. This led to the design of the Patsari stoves’ which feature flat surfaces to allow for the cooking of tortillas and other traditional meals.
With the reduction of burning wood for cooking fires, the Patsari stove uses 60% less firewood and reduces 90% of smoke in homes. This benefits not only the families, but also the monarch butterfly population which has plummeted due to deforestation. Every year, monarch butterflies migrate to the oyamel fir trees in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. This previously dense forest used to provide shelter and warmth for these butterflies every winter, but with these trees being cut down in order to fuel cooking fires, the monarchs suffer harsh winter temperatures and freeze. The implementation of these fuel-efficient stoves, and eliminating the need for wood harvesting, has given the monarch butterfly an opportunity to thrive.
Over 8,500 stoves have been built and distributed in areas around the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. These stoves have led to an estimated 637,000 trees saved in the habitat and a reduction in 127,000 tons of carbon dioxide. Not only are these stoves benefiting local communities by educating them on the effects of deforestation on the monarch butterfly population, they also provide jobs for locals to help build the stoves and improve their health by eliminating deathly smoke inhalation.
Similar to the program in Mexico, ECOLIFE also has a stove initiative in Uganda with efforts to protect the human Batwa population in the area and the vanishing mountain gorilla species in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Three Batwa women are leading the Ugandan stove building crew through spreading awareness about the effects of habitat loss on the gorillas and how it is pushing them into an inescapable corner with little space for their unstable numbers. What these women are doing is no easy feat, but their efforts have allowed for the building and maintenance of 400 stoves in the region surrounding the gorilla habitat.
Toone and Black have founded a successful global conservation group that is not only protecting species like the monarch butterfly and mountain gorilla, but educating and spreading awareness in communities about sustainable agriculture and safe cooking methods. Not only are ECOLIFE’s solutions to the issue of poor food systems innovative and creative, they are also equally effective. It is impossible not to share their passion for both animals and humans alike when thinking about how we source and cook our food. Their efforts are buying us the time that Carson so cynically predicted we are running out of.