Last month my husband and I took a 10-day camping trip through Montana. I was still pondering my recent 5-week trip to East Africa, so life in the camper was soothing and simple. I found the long hikes and lake swims helpful in making sense of the sabbatical experience and what might come next on my return to work. In this latest change of scene, I couldn’t help but compare vacationing off grid in Montana at the 49th parallel with life in East Africa at the equator. Two completely different worlds both affected by climate change.
Global North and South – Exploring New Terms
Before diving into the comparisons, some terminology first. Exploring different professional disciplines has introduced me to new terms in international development. I first heard the term Global South at the University of Rwanda and in increasing frequency since. The term stems from a geographic line proposed in the 1980s by former German Chancellor Willy Brandt. It depicts a global split between relatively richer countries in the north and poorer countries in the south. Because the line is largely driven by a global history of colonization, Global South is a more neutral and less hierarchical term than other northern-imposed terms like ‘third world’, ‘developing countries’ or ‘base of the global economic pyramid (BoP)’. More recently the terms Global North and Global South have been applied not just to countries but to communities, groups and individuals within countries. This abstraction recognizes that economic growth in some Global South countries has created a sizable middle class but also a rich elite that personifies ongoing challenges with the north-side divide (Royal Geographical Society, n.d.).
With that backdrop, my overarching sentiment during the Montana trip was one of acclimating to being back in the Global North. I was acutely aware of my Global North position of privilege, while missing being in the Global South and yearning to help connect the two somehow for myself but also in global climate action. Afterall, the Global South is experiencing the brunt of climate change stemming largely from the Global North’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Northern Latitudes: Long Days and Low Population Density
With these terms swirling in my head, when it comes to the Global North, wow, Montana is way up there. During my travels through Uganda our home base was the capital city Kampala, situated just 45 miles north of the equator. From there we visited rural communities both north and south of the equator. Kenya also straddles the equator and Rwanda’s capital city Kigali sits at only 1° 57′ S. This means that days and nights in East Africa are pretty much even all year long. Contrast that with Montana. With Glacier National Park sitting near 49°north, the days swing widely from more than 16 hours long at summer solstice to just over 8 hours at winter solstice. Montana friends tell us they suffer the winters to enjoy the summers.
Another big difference – Uganda’s population density is 554 people per square mile compared to 93 people per square mile across the United States and only 7 people per square mile in Montana. Although most the earth’s population lives above the equator, population drops off significantly once you get halfway to the north pole (i.e., 45° north) (Datagraver, 2016). You can feel the “Northness” in Montana from the long daylight hours and lower population density. While I enjoyed the quiet and expansiveness of Montana, my heart was with the throngs of humanity closer to the equator struggling more acutely with climate-driven scarcity and crisis.
Surprising Similarities: Elevation and Climate
While latitude and population density couldn’t be more different, elevation between Montana and East Africa is surprisingly similar. Up north the Rocky Mountains start to fade in elevation, with the Continental Divide Trail dropping to about 6,000 feet on average in Glacier National Park compared to 12,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park. The Many Glacier Campground where we stayed in the park sits at 4,500 feet elevation. This means that Northern Montana despite being a half a world away in latitude is pretty much on the same elevation plane as East Africa. People I talk with at home are surprised to learn of the mild climate I experienced in East Africa, mainly because the three capital cities of Kampala Uganda, Kigali Rwanda and Nairobi Kenya average 4,978 ft in elevation (3,904’, 5,141’ and 5,889’ respectively). With cooler temperatures from higher elevations, I never went a day in Montana or East Africa where I was either hot or cold. With no air conditioning or heating required in either place, I relished the low-energy lifestyle.
Both Vexed by Climate Change
Unfortunately, like what I’ve shared in my blogs on Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya, there’s plenty of evidence of climate change even in northern Montana. The two most visible signs are melting glaciers and poor air quality from wildfires. The hike to Grinnell Glacier is stunning, but it’s hard to ignore the glacier’s dramatic retreat. Some scientists predict glaciers in the park will be completely gone in less than 15 years (Nixon, 2018). What about the young families we met on the hike? Will the park lose its namesake before some of the babes in the smiling photos grow to adulthood?
According to park signage, the glaciers provide much more than stunning views. They’re the basis for a vital ecosystem threatened by climate change. Bigger picture, half the population in the U.S. relies on snowmelt for drinking water (Postel, 2017). Between its low population density and 80% of its water originating in-state, Montana is somewhat known as the drinking fountain of the American West. Unfortunately, that status is vulnerable because climate change is causing Montana’s average temperatures to rise faster than national and global averages (Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, 2018).
Rising temperatures and increased drought also lead to more wildfires. With our daughter spending her summer as a wildfire fighter in Montana, we were especially aware of the wildfire smoke from Canada and a new fire in Montana’s Lolo National Forest that clouded all our hikes in Glacier National Park, especially our Siyeh Pass hike where we met locals informing us of the wildfires nearby.
Beyond Montana, an unprecedented scale of wildfires in both the Amazon and the arctic circle this summer have made it clear that no part of the globe is escaping the effects of climate change (Mack, 2019).
Grid-Hopping and Paying Attention to What We Use
Beyond these geographic and climate change comparisons, I couldn’t help but juxtapose camper life in Montana with my travels in east Africa from an electric grid standpoint. In the U.S., off-grid living is primarily a chosen lifestyle or temporary sought-after indulgence – like on a camping or sailing vacation. Wanting to ‘unplug’ and get away from it all. In contrast, despite more rapid electrification in recent years, most Africans still don’t have access to electricity (Lucy Shaw, 2018). I think it’s important for us in the Global North to know where things we use in daily life come from – like food, water, electricity, propane and cell service. Putting these services in an international context can only help to make us more aware global citizens.
Electric Grids – Similarities in Powering Campers and Remote Villages
For example, the solar panels on our camper reminded me of the system that we learned about in Kampala when touring Fenix International. Their ReadyPay Solar Power System is designed to bring affordable, ultra-efficient, solar-powered consumer electronics to remote off-grid households. Using pay as you go (PAG) financing, Fenix’s product line is highly modular so customers can expand their system as family economic prosperity grows. The typical Fenix starter system is 10 Watts for lighting and USB charging, with Home Deluxe units at 34 Watts for powering a high efficiency television. Households or family compounds can add units/modules over time. By comparison, the roof mounted system on our camper is 160 watts. In addition to interior and exterior lighting and USB charging, our camper system allows us to power a small dorm-size DC refrigerator-freezer, a roof vent fan and a small water pump from an onboard storage tank into a hand sink – all household luxuries by Global South standards.
Both Fenix’s ReadyPay system and our family camper have battery storage and controls for the solar panel. That said, there’s one huge difference. Our camper is a home on wheels powered by a 290 horse-power Ford F150 engine. The engine gets us from place to place while recharging the battery system where solar may fall short of demand, increasing our electric reliability. Obviously solar-PAG systems in the Global South don’t have this luxury, again making me acutely aware of my Global North privilege.
Beyond electricity, I found myself thinking of the millions of African women who travel long distances every day to tote water back to their homes for cooking and bathing. At eight pounds per gallon, I was grateful for the conveniences the camper water tank and easy-fill stations provided. The same goes for our recycling and waste hauling systems in the U.S., along with our expansive highway and road infrastructure systems and our access to food. Generally, I found the people I met traveling through East Africa to be much closer to the land and the systems of water, food, and energy that sustain their lives.
Linking North and South – Carbon-Free Living On and Off the Grid
At the end of our Montana road trip we spent a day at the Annual Montana Clean Energy Fair in Bozeman. It was heartening to see yet another similarity between East Africa and Montana. Grassroots movements on the ground engaging communities in conversations about climate change and steps we can all take to lessen our footprint, be more mindful of the impact we have on others and to help one another on this shared threat felt around the globe.
Traveling in both East Africa and Montana brought me closer again to my daily carbon and waste footprints. While I try to live a 100% renewable energy and low-carbon lifestyle there are areas where my lifestyle needs a tune-up. For example, due to rising summer temperatures and increased wildfires we added air conditioning to our LEED-certified home last year. Granted the air conditioning is tied to an efficient ground source heat pump system powered by renewable energy. But this new load requires additional solar panels on our roof to offset the increased electricity consumption. From a presentation at the Clean Energy Fair, I’m also looking into switching our natural gas tankless hot water system to an electric on-demand heater that can likewise be tied to an expanded rooftop solar system.
And while we mainly ride our bikes or drive an electric vehicle around town – what about airline travel and all the gasoline from road trips, especially in the camper? For this situation, there are carbon offsets. I’m excited about a new product in development from Energy Peace Partners called Peace RECs (renewable energy credits). Peace-RECs are an instrument for homes, business, institutions and governments to offset their greenhouse gas emissions with the proceeds going to fund renewable energy projects in global conflict zones hardest hit by climate change. When I first heard about PRECs I thought it was a stroke of genius – offering a way for us in the Global North to connect our emissions-reduction efforts to those most affected in the Global South.
Next week 16-year old Greta Stenberg and other youth will implore the UN General Assembly to take climate change more seriously (Barnard, 2019). As Greta says, only action can breed hope. In solidarity with her and her entire generation, including my own kids, grid-hopping in the Global North has given me renewed commitment to close my own emissions gaps while doubling down on my professional practice to help prevent, prepare and protect people from climate change, especially those hardest hit in the Global South.
Barnard, A. (2019, August 28). New York Times. Retrieved from Greta Thunberg, Climate Activist, Arrives in N.Y. With a Message for Trump: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/28/nyregion/greta-thunberg-new-york.html
Datagraver. (2016, September 21). World Population Distribution by Latitude and Longitude. Retrieved from Datagraver: https://www.datagraver.com/case/world-population-distribution-by-latitude-and-longitude-2015
Lucy Shaw, M. T. (2018, April 30). Quartz Africa. Retrieved from More people than ever now have electricity in Africa, but 600 million are still in the dark: https://qz.com/africa/1265780/how-many-people-have-electricity-in-africa/
Mack, E. (2019, July 24). Forbes. Retrieved from Unprecedented Wildfires Are Smothering the Arctic In Smoke: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ericmack/2019/07/24/the-arctic-is-on-fire-like-never-before/#6bb9bb32545f
Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. (2018, May 22). Montana’s Water Future. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JVtzjVWxpk
Nixon, R. (2018, March 18). The Swiftness of Glaciers: Language in a Time of Climate Change. Retrieved from AEON: https://aeon.co/ideas/the-swiftness-of-glaciers-language-in-a-time-of-climate-change
Postel, S. (2017). Replenish: The VIrtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. Washington DC: Island Press.
Royal Geographical Society. (n.d.). The Global North/South Divide. Retrieved from Royal Geographical Society: https://www.rgs.org/CMSPages/GetFile.aspx?nodeguid=9c1ce781-9117-4741-af0a-a6a8b75f32b4&lang=en-GB