A story from 2015 that does not cease to inspire. And more than inspire. After seeing Puerto Rico’s food-import supply chains severely tested by Hurricane Maria two years later, the relevance of that day at Leonides High could not be greater.
Rolando Meléndez smiled and talked without pause as he flipped burger patties on the pot sitting atop an abandoned satellite TV dish he had turned into a solar BBQ burner.
Why, I asked, are you doing this? Meléndez did not, after all, have to be out here this Saturday morning, under the burning parking-lot sun showing his ware to a group of high school students.
He was invited to put up an orientation table at the September 26, 2015 Green Apple Day of Service activity organized by a group of teachers at Leonides Morales High School in the remote town of Lajas in southwestern Puerto Rico.
Green Apple Day, held different days in different places around the world, is the work of the NGO Green Apple, an initiative of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and its Center for Green Schools.
The site points to some 5,000 Green Apple events held this year. At Leonides High, organizers informally called it Pineapple Day, in honor of the pineapples grown in the mostly agricultural Lajas Valley.
“Why am I doing this?” Meléndez began, as he handed me a piece of burger and demonstrated the other innovation the retired pharmaceutical engineer came here to showcase, a vertical hydroponic system made to grow plants in tight spaces such as balconies, rooftops and small patio gardens.
“I’m doing this because climate change is about to dismantle the way we live, and the change is more imminent and will be more destructive than most people think. We face a time of hunger and want the likes of which humanity has never seen, so we better get ready, and one way is to make sure everyone can grow their own food with these sorts of simple methods that are either inexpensive or anyone can make on their own.”
Whaaat? That was one unexpected answer.
More than two months before the start of the UN COP21 Climate Conference to be held in Paris Nov. 3 – Dec. 11, and before the UN revealed in October that the voluntary country commitments agreed to at the summit will not keep the planet within the 2ºC threshold scientists assure will tip the global economy into massive collapse — it’s as if Meléndez already knew the outcome and had launched his desperate crusade to help people help themselves.
Not that he openly preached a collapse message at the event. That remains the elephant in every room, kept hidden away by the fear that if the truth is widely known, it will lead to civilization-wide despair and paralysis. But in this one conversation, he felt free to reveal that deepest of all motivations.
He began cleaning up, as the activity was drawing to a close and the students and teachers could be seen walking toward the exit near Meléndez’s spot.
“You see those students?” he continued. “I don’t know how many of them listened today. I don’t know if any was inspired by my orientation or by any of the other stations. But if only one got the message, a handful perhaps, that’s a handful of families that might fare better as a result, and that’s why I come out here and do this. That’s why I’m willing to go anywhere and do this.”
‘We will have no other choice’
As if on cue, the students and teachers surrounded the BBQ maker and burst into a loud and sustained round of applause.
The activity’s chief organizer and USGBC Puerto Rico board member, Ada Miranda, reached for the loudspeaker to close out the activity.
“Take home what you have learned from this man here today. Take home what you have learned from every teacher and presenter here today. You are the future. This is your world now. Go out and make the best of it, and may the good Lord be with you.”
No one, it seemed, wanted to leave. The kids just hung out. In one large huddle, Alberto, 17, spoke of how he dreamed of taking over the family farm one day and doing “what I can to help the community pull through regardless of what comes our way.”
Many students, in fact, said they wanted to remain rooted in the region’s farming community, a prospect much welcomed by Carlos Molina. The school’s revered principal, himself a family farmer and career agronomist, has spent much of his five years at the helm strengthening the school’s vocational certification program in agriculture, a move he considers central to the school’s success.
On an island suffering through a decade-long recession and a population exodus that has led to the loss of nearly 40,000 public-school students in recent years — just under 3% of the total — Leonides High has gone from 439 students in 2010 to 743 this school year.
Does this mean parents are catching on to what is coming and preparing their children for the career of the future?
“Perhaps,” said Molina. “There is no question in my mind that access to food and water will become the central focus of our lives in the coming years. Whoever isn’t on to this already soon will. We need to take farming to the city, to plant on every possible empty lot and rooftop. When the sea level rises and our stores are no longer able to import food, this is how people will feed themselves.”
Those who do not take to urban farms, he added, will be drawn to the countryside. “I anticipate a pretty significant reverse migration in the coming decades.”
And not just in search of food. “People in communities around the island will have to produce their own clothes and fulfill other basic needs. We will have no other choice.”
People who live in large countries or continental territories, he surmised, “will have more options. But this is an island, and all islands are more vulnerable to scarcities. People are less able to get on a plane and move out” — precisely the fight being waged by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in UN climate talks, with such islands as the Maldives, Komodo and Tuvalu already making arrangements to relocate their entire populations to safer harbors.
‘The warming we need’
The United States, with Puerto Rico and four other island territories under its wings, plus the island-state of Hawaii, has thus far failed to pay much attention or take resilience seriously. Mainland states also face Hollywood-scale scare scenarios, particularly coastal zones.
In a highly viral recent story, The New Republic reported that with 60% of Florida’s Miami-Dade county within the expected 2-5-meter sea-level rise by century’s end, the area’s property losses “will far outstrip that of any city in the world, reaching almost $3.5 trillion by the 2070s.”
To the Pineapple Day organizer and self-described planet warrior, this is about far more than losing property.
“This is about the wellbeing of people,” said Ada Miranda. “That’s my concern. That’s what I wake up every morning for, to take every opportunity God gives me to guide my students and lead this and every other community I can join to find practical, everyday solutions.”
Two weeks before the start of COP21, Miranda joined a community-resilience panel at the two-day Climate Change in the Caribbean Conference, held in San Juan, Nov. 17-18.
“We can’t wait for global solutions,” she told the audience. “The solutions must reside at the community level, where everyone is important, where everyone can make a difference. Each of us must do what we can. What we do is invisible to the rest of the world, but that doesn’t matter. We matter. This matters, because it starts deep within as an act of love and spreads to everyone around us, especially to the young.”
Fellow panelist and painter, guitarist, photographer and biologist, Maritza González Cintrón, could not agree more. She leads Yo Quiero Un Mundo (I Want a World), a youth group that visits vulnerable communities around the island and moves residents to “become aware of and fall in love with the place where they live — their plant and animal species, the people, everything about it.”
Maritza’s message and art exhibit was a big Pineapple Day draw at Leonides High. “The first change you have to make,” she told student groups, “is the change of your internal climate. The warming we need is the one that burns in your heart.”
Sofia was touched. “It’s like the artist lady said earlier,” the tenth grader told me later, “I’m not sure what’s going on with climate change and all. All I know is that I want to help in whatever way I can no matter what happens.”
So there’s your answer, said Meléndez. “That’s why we all do this.”
And so the story goes, in community after community in every corner of the planet, whether Lajas or Timbuktu — folks you wouldn’t think at first glance are this crystal clear about the full implications of humanity’s greatest challenge, devoted this hard not just to solving it, but more importantly to helping society adapt if solutions come too late. Or if they already are.
Let’s hope at some point along the journey they finally bring the elephant out to full view.