Dignity Days

A Social Justice Metric: Dignity-Days

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As a social justice organization, Nature For Justice (N4J) is committed to helping local people impacted by the climate crisis have dignity in their lives.  But how best should we think about dignity and livelihoods?

The Challenge: Additionality, Durability, and Permanence

The topic came to light as I was recently meeting with an old friend and former colleague, Nick Salafsky, a founder of Foundations Of Success and one of the smartest people I know when it comes to the importance of developing strategies that have measurable outcomes.  As so many have done, Nick was questioning the additionality1, durability, and permanence2 of Nature-based Solution’s (NBS3) projects.

The NBS projects that N4J is focused on are those that protect forests, improve landscapes through activities like regenerative farming, and restoration activities like planting trees — and finding ways to economically improve the lives of those who live on or off those areas. These actions, as recent scientific studies from Bronsom Griscom and others have shown, can sequester over a third of the carbon needed to keep global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius or below in order to meet the Paris climate goals4.

So the first part of my response to Nick was — I’ll stick with the science. It may change but until it does, I’m going with the consensus view of what NBS can provide.

The second part of my response is “Why does it matter if we create an NBS project and it fails — we won’t know until we try?” Over many years of work across the globe in the conservation arena, I have seen all too often that projects fail for a list of reasons too long to catalog here.  Clearly, we don’t want to start something that is doomed to failure. However,  with the best intentions, planning, and transparency for all engaged, let’s attempt initiatives that give communities a shot at achieving resilience, and their members dignity,  in the face of the climate crisis, with the hope that they can thrive.

Working on the Ground

Let’s take an example. A community of 100 people in an African country receives funding to try a regenerative agriculture program for subsistence farmers.  The planning has been rigorous, the community and its leadership are committed and excited over the opportunity to try this new approach, the funding allows the ‘switching costs’ from the old ways to the new, and everything else that could be addressed has been thought of and factored in.  But after 1,000 days of effort through a variety of reasons, such as an unexpected drought,  the program fails.

Should we not try again and factor in what we learned through effort? If we believe in this method (and we believe in NBS), have we raised expectations and then those expectations were dashed upon the hard rocks of unforeseen issues that led to failure?

We will try again (even smarter than before) and, as long as the leadership and community fully understood the risks involved and, everyone did the right thing. It just did not work out.  That happens and, sadly, it is happening even more with climate change.

A New Metric: Dignity-Days

What have we achieved beyond the learnings?  I would argue that for those 100 people, we put 1,000 days of dignity back into their lives as we worked with them for a better future.  That’s 100,000 “Dignity-Days.” Dignity in the sense of self-reliance, self-esteem, and pride in their work to make life better for themselves and their community.  Some may ask how is it possible to measure dignity?  Ask those involved, and they’ll count the days up for you.

I’d rather give people hope and an opportunity at long-term dignity, than to not start down the path fearing failure.  Hope and opportunity fuel purpose which is a powerful motivator. It can drive much of the project’s planning, transparent expectation setting, and careful implementation behind the opportunity.

As I have written about through numerous blogs of my time in the refugee camps in Somalia, the timber company in Papua New Guinea, and creating a vision and plan (with the help of many others) for Nature For Justice, we’ll keep trying as nature and people can’t wait for perfect solutions. But we can look forward to and strive to help marginal communities around the world create many, many dignity-days as they confront the climate crisis.

1Additionality:  The GHG reductions achieved by a project need to be ‘additional’ to what would have happened if the project had not been carried out (e.g. continued as business-as-usual).

2Projects need to ensure that GHG emissions are kept out of the atmosphere for a reasonable length of time.

3NBS: This is a broader term than Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) as NBS  also refers to climate adaptation, food security, water security, human health, and social and economic development derived from nature.

4Natural Climate Solutions, PNAS, Vol Griscom et al, October 16, 2017 114 (44) 11645-11650 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1710465114


  • An engineer who later got a business degree to achieve social and environmental justice through existing economic structures. He’s started or built many organizations and projects. Hank lives in Falls Church, VA, with his wife and is an avid bee-keeper.

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