Sustainability in International Education: Interview with Michael Despines

Michael Despines, Guest Blogger
Today’s guest post is by the very talented Michael Despines, Sustainability Advocate. I had the pleasure of meeting Michael at the School for International Training in the early 90s. This past year, Michael served as the keynote speaker at the Connecticut State University System’s International Education Conference. His multimedia presentation was talked about for weeks!  He was incredibly effective at breaking down very complicated issues (climate change/sustainability and how it impacts the global community) into digestible morsels, while relaying individual action plans for participants.
For today’s guest blog, I asked Michael about how the crisis facing our planet is impacting communities around the world. Please enjoy his thought provoking responses and be sure to check out his incredible bio below. Michael is available to presentation on your organization.  Click here for more information.

Melibee Global (MG): Michael, what prompted you to shift your career and personal focus from international relief work to environmental sustainability ?

Michael Despines (MD): Early on in my career overseas I realized that our work was to help poor countries become economic replicates of the United States or Europe.  Intuitively, I sensed that our society was not sustainable and I began a lifelong study on issues related to sustainability.  The more I learned, the more my sense of concern and urgency grew.  Over time, I decided to return to the U.S. and work on educating people about these issues and promoting a prosperous and sustainable society.

MG: Melibee Global is a blog that focuses on international education. In this field, there has been a lot of buzz about the “Green Passport” program. Are we moving in the right direction with this program?  How can those of us who plan programs around the world (study/internships/volunteer abroad) be more effective in minimizing or offsetting the carbon footprint?

MD: Your question is a profound one.  I am a passionate believer in the value of travel abroad – my overseas experience completely transformed me and opened untold worlds of intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth.  That being said, international travel has a tremendous cost and recreational air travel will soon be an anachronism.  The Green Passport program is right on – it places travel in proper perspective.  Travel must be revered and respected for the extreme privilege that it is.  The traveler must understand the high cost to the planet of such an experience and be committed to making the changes needed to live his or her life, day in and day out, in balance with nature.  Carbon offset projects rarely produce the promised reductions – do not rely on them.

MG: As individual travelers, what are the changes we should be making to impact sustainability positively?

MD: Use public transportation as much as you can.  Drive as little as possible.  Support local business and local food suppliers.  Carry your own water.  Avoid plastic.  Be aware of your choices and their impacts.  Take your time.  Much of the worst damage we do to the planet takes place when we rush or when we are short on time (eating fast food, buying bottled water, using throw away goods, etc.)

MG: How do you address those who say that climate change is a fairy tale?

MD: The debate was over 20 years ago.  Every, and I mean every, credible scientific body in the world has signed on in support. Every government in the world, including the United States under George Bush, has publicly acknowledged that man-made climate change is a fact.  Get over it.  Climate change deniers now fall among those who believe that world is flat, or that man did not go to the moon.

MG: Can you recommend any books for our readers?

MD: Hmmm, so many.  “The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability” by James Gustave Speth. Read this book and you will understand all the key environmental, social, political, and economic issues, problems and solutions related to creating a sustainable society.  “An Agenda for a New Economy” by David Korten.  A thin book that changed how I live my life.  Here is a longer list.

MG: You spent many years working with the International Rescue Committee in Africa.  How are issues with climate change specifically impacting this region of the world?

MD: The poorest people in the world in both Africa and Asia are being hit hardest by the impacts of climate change.  Developing countries are heavily reliant on agriculture – the dramatic shift in climate is causing more frequent floods in some areas and extreme droughts in others.  Either way yields are dropping.  Hunger is rising.  Each year there are an additional 150,000 deaths from malaria as the rising temperatures are allowing malaria laden mosquitoes to move into new areas.  Women are particularly vulnerable —  they have the least access to education and information about how to respond to climate change.  Most farmers are actually women so they suffer most when crops fail.  Women also take care of the children and the household so they are least able to flee the rising number of extreme weather events caused by climate change.

MG: Is it too late for us to change to deal with climate change?  Is it too late to create a sustainable society?

MD: The way we live our life right now in America is taking us on a path to societal suicide.  Our demands on the planet are overwhelming the planet’s life support systems.  The signs are everywhere.  Temperatures rising.  Fish stocks collapsing.  Forests disappearing.  Water tables dropping.  That is the bad news.  The good news is that all the solutions are here, right now, today.  We don’t need any new technology to create a world that is prosperous and in balance with nature.  We simply have to make different choices.  The future can be astounding.  Really.  In my talks I help map out both the bad and the good and the potential that awaits us.  But the clock is ticking, and we must start making these changes NOW.  Mother Nature will not wait much longer before she takes corrective action.

MG: Before we wrap up, I’d like to switch gears for a moment. You are an accomplished photographer. Tell our readers about how you got started with this hobby.

MD: As a child I was always crazy about animals: my room was full of stuffed toy animals and animal picture books.  Every Sunday night I would anxiously await the next episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  I had seen every animal documentary made.  So, when I went to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer I bought my first cheap Nikon camera.  Over the years I gradually taught myself how to take a decent photo and I went on safari every chance I could.  Connecting with nature is essential.  Nature nutures.

MG: Thank you, Michael, for sharing your wisdom with our readers.

Michael Despines' safari photo: Zebras

About the Author: Michael’s 17 years of experience with the International Rescue Committee in Africa inspired him to act on behalf of some of the people who are most negatively impacted by decisions made in the west. Michael worked as a senior manager, strategist, and advocate for several international relief and development organizations.  As Regional Director for the International Rescue Committee, he supervised programs in Rwanda, Burundi, The Republic of Congo, The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Tanzania.  As the Asia Regional Director for CHF International Michael supervised community development programs in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Mongolia.  Michael spent six years in eastern DRC as the country director overseeing a broad range of humanitarian and development programs.  He has also worked for the International Medical Corps in Angola, and Action against Hunger-USA in Rwanda.  He began his overseas work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon. Over the last several years Michael has focused on promoting sustainable development in the United States.  He has worked with Environment America, Clean Air-Cool Planet, and spent a year with Friends of the Earth advocating for sound US policy to address the impacts of climate change and he co-authored a report on the risks associated with the use of carbon offsets.  He is currently the Vice President of International Programs at the Institute for Sustainable Communities,  Michael has conducted extensive reading and research on environmental science, climate science, energy technology, consumption, economics, and other topics related to sustainability.  Based on this research and life experience, Michael created “The American Dream – The World’s Nightmare,” a powerful presentation that he offers to high schools, colleges, universities, churches and other public venues to increase public awareness and action on these issues.  Michael also writes a blog called Sustainable Thoughts. Michael holds a B.S in Electrical Engineering, a B.A. in General Arts and Science, and a Masters in International Management. He is fluent in French and English.