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This Earth Day, Jump In! Bolt’s Director of Corporate Responsibility on Progress for the Planet

Written by Libby Sommer, Director of Corporate Responsibility at Bolt Threads

It’s been more than 20 years since I participated in my first Earth Day celebrations. And how things have changed: Back then the conversations were about neighborhood clean-ups, increasing recycling, and planting trees. These are all great things to do, but it’s hard to argue that these efforts alone will lead to the systems change we need across the world.

Earlier this year, I went “back to school” – this time as an adjunct instructor in the University of Oregon’s Sports Product Management Program. Alongside another colleague in the industry, we taught 45 graduate students in an introductory course on sustainable materials innovation. My co-instructor and I started the class with a very simple principle: Making things will always have impact (both positive and negative). The corollary to this is that making nothing is the only way to have zero impact. But is zero impact what we want?

For a long time, sustainability and environmentalism in particular have held up this mythical idea of an untouched world, free from human interference. This mythology rears up in cynical comments suggesting the only way to “save the world” is to return to a caveman-like existence, and in more earnest statements about protecting “pristine wilderness”. The fact is, as long as humans have been on this planet we’ve had an impact.

Long before Europeans arrived in the Americas, Indigenous peoples were doing much to change the surrounding landscape. Scholars believe these peoples set controlled fires to improve plant yield, manage pests, and divert big game into smaller areas for hunting. Some scientists argue early humans significantly shaped the Amazon rainforest. In short much of the land is believed to have been managed.

About the time Europeans arrived on these shores, Indigenous people began to die in alarming numbers. Whether from violent conflicts during colonization, European diseases like smallpox, or other endemic ailments, the Indigenous population dropped somewhere between 70 to 90 percent. Such a reduction in people meant that over time, much land was no longer managed. This in turn led to the idea that Indigenous people had almost no impact on their environment, a concept called the Pristine Myth.

Why do I bring up this history? Well, for one it signals to me that our goal is not “zero impact.” Our goal is impact that is in balance with the planet. Arguably we are out of balance in a number of areas. Second, it reminds me of how interconnected humanity is with nature and how fundamental recognition of that interconnectedness is to solving the problems in the world. So how do we change our impact?

For me the concepts of planetary boundaries and doughnut economics are helpful ways to frame this idea of balancing our impact. We want to decrease our (negative) environmental impact and increase our (positive) social impact. In this balance, some planetary boundaries have clearly articulated limits, climate change being the most well known. There, the IPCC – the United Nations entity that drives climate change-related science – says that to manage climate change, the world needs to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. For other impacts, like chemical pollution, we don’t have a single boundary yet defined. And how about people? Well, we don’t “solve” climate change without also addressing climate justice. Similarly, we cannot make environmentally friendlier materials without also ensuring the workers who produce them benefit as well. (For example, see the concerns about Better Cotton Initiative certified cotton in Xinjiang, China.)

Sustainability problems are fundamentally systems problems. While many of us would like to have “the” solution to our planetary challenges, my personal belief is that we are well served to think in systems, set aside perfection, and jump in (sometimes easier said than done). For Bolt Threads, that’s meant intense exploration and a big-picture lens on our role in the systems we’re a part of – from iterating on thousands of samples for our leather alternative MyloTM, to prioritizing partnerships with other companies committed to ethical and sustainable work.

This Earth Day, you’ll still find me recycling and picking up litter. And you’ll also find me learning about and thinking in systems. Here are a few actions you can take:

1 – Read Systems Thinking 101 by Leyla Acaroglu. She writes and teaches on system thinking and the related concept of life cycle thinking through her organization, Unschool.

2 – Donate in support of ending violence against Asian American and Pacific Islanders, such as through the CommUNITY Action Fund by Hate Is a Virus, Stop AAPI Hate, and the Chinatown Community Development Center. Bolt has been matching our employees’ donations to these organizations up to $10,000 this month, and we hope to see even more support for these causes!

3 – Examine how white supremacy underpins American environmentalism in this highly informative lecture.

4 – Take action on local issues. The past year has taught me how much local politics matter. Use websites like this one to find your local representatives and their stance on positions important to you.

5 – And lastly, take care of yourselves. There’s a lot happening in the world right now, and these issues need our energy. But we can only give it when we ourselves are taken care of.

Libby Sommer is the Director of Corporate Responsibility at Bolt Threads. Learn more about her work here.

 

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