How can we leave the world a better place than we found it? The question is challenging, but it also presents an exciting opportunity as our society tackles the issue of creating and maintaining sustainable communities. For the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, helping people engage at the local level to improve the conditions that affect their communities and quality of life has been at the heart of our Environment program’s work for nearly three decades.
From protecting the vibrant Great Lakes ecosystem, to improving social and environmental accountability of large-scale infrastructure projects in developing countries, to advancing innovative clean energy solutions, the next iteration of our work embraces opportunities to respond to ongoing challenges, as well as new environmental concerns. Our new program plan, formally adopted by the Board of Trustees in September 2014, uses the framework of sustainability to strengthen, refine and expand our environmental work in ways we believe can continue to advance these efforts here in the United States and around the globe.
In this Q&A, Mott Environment Program Director Sam Passmore reflects on the evolution of the Foundation’s environmental grantmaking and gives us a look at what we can expect from the program going forward.
Mott: The Foundation’s Trustees recently approved a new program plan to guide Mott’s environmental grantmaking. In a nutshell, how would you characterize the new plan?
Sam Passmore: I would say that it builds on our long-standing commitment to environmental issues and responds to new opportunities in the field. For a number of years, we’ve had two major grantmaking interests, one in freshwater conservation and one in development finance. We’ll continue those interests under the program names, Addressing the Freshwater Challenge and Transforming Development Finance. We’re adding to that a third program area, Advancing Climate Change Solutions, which will allow us to respond to opportunities we’re seeing in the climate and clean energy arena. The program as a whole will, as it has in the past, continue to be aimed at promoting solutions at the community level that balance economic growth, environmental protection and social concerns — in a word, sustainability.
Mott: Can you talk more about the freshwater challenge? How does the Foundation’s work aim to address it?
Passmore: Overall, what we mean by the freshwater challenge is balancing society’s requirements for plentiful, clean, fresh water while also leaving enough in its natural state to support healthy ecosystems and sustain freshwater biodiversity. That is increasingly one of the greatest challenges of this century. You sometimes hear people say that water will be the oil of the 21st century, suggesting that access to clean, plentiful water will drive many social, economic and geopolitical considerations — just as access to oil did in the last century. This is the challenge we hope to continue to address in the program area.
We’ll do so by helping to build a strong non-profit sector and supporting specific water policy reform effort. The Foundation’s freshwater grantmaking is primarily focused on the Great Lakes, which I hope comes as no surprise, given that we’re based in the Great Lakes State. We’ll also continue to support work focused on securing healthy river flows in selected areas of the southeastern United States where we have been engaged for about 15 years.
Mott: What can we expect to see in the Foundation’s grantmaking around development finance?
Passmore: For more than 20 years, Mott grantees have been working to improve the transparency and accountability practices of major international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, that invest in major energy and infrastructure projects in developing countries. While that work has been complicated, the end goal is clear: minimize the negative impacts such projects have on the environment and communities. An example of the incredible value — and challenge — of those efforts is evident in our grantees’ efforts to improve the public finance policies and practices related to the construction of large hydropower dams in the Amazon.
This body of work will continue under the new plan with a special focus on Brazil and China, which have emerged in recent years as key actors in the international development finance arena. There are a growing number of organizations based in these countries that are working to reshape the conversations and approaches to responsible development practices. We also are supporting groups in countries receiving Brazilian and Chinese investments to ensure that environmental and social standards are met.
Our hope is that, one day, all such investments the world over are held to the same high standards of accountability and environmental performance as those our grantees have helped achieve in the settings where they’ve been working for years.
Mott: We’re also launching a new program area related to the issue of climate change. Would you tell us a bit about this?
Passmore: We plan to support organizations and people working at the community level to stimulate the use of clean energy technologies both in our home state of Michigan and internationally. Of course the context is quite different in the developing world compared with here at home, but the goals are quite similar. And I expect we’ll discover some synergies between the two. I think the international work is a particularly exciting prospect because we have the opportunity to make a real contribution to increasing access to clean energy. By that we mean delivering modern energy services to rural communities in the developing world in ways that don’t exacerbate the climate change problem. This need is particularly great in Asia and Africa, but there are important areas of need in South America as well. Right now, most of the communities depend on old solutions, like burning kerosene and wood, but in many cases this is an economic burden on families, bad for people’s health and not good for the environment, either. By emphasizing access to clean energy in rural areas, we’re hoping to help communities bypass the 20th century model of massive power grid distribution networks and instead move toward local, decentralized sources of renewable electricity that are cleaner and more accessible. The opportunity to just leapfrog over the old model and move to decentralized generation of renewables, like rooftop solar, can help create prosperity, improve lives, and strengthen environmental conditions in these areas.
Mott: What gives you hope that the world will move in the direction of sustainability?
Passmore: You know, I just don’t think we have a choice. There has been a lot of science and research of late that suggests we’re pushing up against some thresholds in terms of planetary sustainability and human society’s impact on basic environmental systems that support life. So I think, in the grand scheme of things, it’s inevitable that we’re going to move towards a more sustainable footing. The real questions are: can we do that gracefully, and will the transition be relatively easy? We know there are innovative, smart solutions that are already working on the ground, and the challenge is to test these ideas, improve upon them and promote them. I think the work the Foundation is supporting, and will support into the future, can definitely help point us in the right direction so that the transition to sustainability is relatively smooth, benefits all sectors of society and looks out for important environmental concerns.