Environmental sustainability is a hard, hard topic

I don't know where to start. Where does one start when the ideas are a mixture of anger, frustration, hope and a need to spread information?

Because, fundamentally, this is where it's at. The need to spread information.

Last year I attended a class called "Environment". It's compulsory both for architectural technicians and quantity surveyors who are studying at this institute. Unfortunately though, the class is run by a tutor who really has no idea what he's talking about: the man is trained in steel construction and the environment class has been "given" to him, I suspect, to simply fill his teaching quota. He has neither knowledge nor passion for environmental design, impact studies or sustainability in general.

Which is why, in the very first lecture of the year, I found myself in a curious position of wanting to be the teacher instead. Our tutor was making introductory remarks on climate change when another student spoke up that climate change isn't real. "It's just another way for the government to put taxes on everyday people!" he was exclaiming, "And besides, the earth cools and warms all the time! It goes through these cycles. It's what earth does! "

I looked towards my tutor. He wasn't saying anything. The man had no intention - and I suspect, knowledge - to refute what my fellow student was saying and I was sitting there, thinking, really? This is where we're going to leave it? I spoke up. "Look, guys, how about we make a deal. When you're sitting around a table drinking beers with friends, you're welcome to make grand-standing statements and not back them up with any evidence. But when we're in class, can you please reference to where you get this sort of information from!"

That other student was not impressed. For several minutes we went back-and-forth, he was making angry remarks at me, I was making angry remarks right back at him - it was a piss-fight, really. Eventually we wound down, and the tutor continued his lecture/slideshow about environmental impacts on building design and I sat there thinking, someone has to do something. This class has twenty-odd students who are in their prime time for absorbing science-based knowledge on environmental impact of built structures and no-one providing them with it. Once they are out of school, that's it. At the moment they are, somewhat voluntarily, sitting in a class listening and watching. THIS IS A LOST OPPORTUNITY.

I asked the tutor if he would allow me to make a presentation on sustainability the following week. Sure, he said, go ahead. A week later I got up in front of the class, powered up my slideshow I had meticulously prepared and launched into a 30-minute lecture. On one hand, I felt spectacularly out of place - it was clear from the content of the lecture that I was trying to fill the gap that my tutor was leaving so painfully open otherwise. On the other hand though (and you may say that it was just my personal grand-standing), that presentation was good. As much as it wasn't my role to be in front of the class like that, that day, I made a good job of teaching.

The talk covered sustainability, planetary boundaries, development of human societies and a history of mass-extinctions. I tried, in the best way I could, to explain why it's important to keep the planet in the Holocene: that developed human societies have never existed in anything other than a stable climate of the Holocene. I touched on fossil record of mass-extinctions, referenced everything I could with outside sources so as to not leave anyone wondering where I got this information from and by the time I sat down, I was both proud but also very tired. I don't actually like making public gestures of dissent. (Even if I feel very compelled to do something in the absence of anyone else doing something.)

A couple of days later, I received surprising and absolutely humbling pieces of feedback from my fellow classmates. Several said that they had enjoyed the talk, learned from it; one of them, in particular, sat down next to me in the hallway and said that my lecture had explained to her why we need to study environment. Before that, she said, she had wondered why architects even need to have this class - and after, she said, she felt compelled to go home and learn more about it.

My jaw just about dropped to the ground hearing that. But with the pleasure of having done something important, a painful realisation came that... these students were the easy ones to talk to. Most were young adults in early 20's, there to learn, an almost literally captive audience with a personally-driven interest in the topic.

But try talking to (much older) adults who really don't care. Geesh!

To the point of glitter

My daughter attends a daycare who are, let's put it this way... not the most environmentally conscious business I've come across. One thing in particular has been rubbing on my nerves lately: their profuse use of glitter. Big pots of plastic-based glitter are used in their crafting and it ends up ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE. On the floor, on furniture, inside clothes, inside bags, on the floor at our home, on food. Everywhere! The mess is such that the daycare have taken to using glitter outside, rather than indoors, and they brush the glitter onto grass and sandpits. "It's easier to clean up," they say.

(insert sigh)

I looked at it and one day talked to one of the teachers. "Hey, so... have you guys thought about limiting the use of glitter a little?" - "No, why? Kids love it." - "Yeah, I know. But the thing is... glitter is a microplastic. It's basically made of whole bunch of little plastic pieces. When you brush it off, it ends up in the soil, wind takes some of it, it goes down waterways. When you wash it down the sink, it doesn't even get captured by the filters in the water treatment plant - it's just too small. It ends up in the ocean. It's actually quite bad, environmentally-speaking." We talked for a while and she said she'd pass the message on to others in the monthly meeting.

I waited. And waited. Nothing happened.

About a month later I went to see the manager at the daycare. "Hey, so... have you guys thought about...?" We went through the same conversation as with the teacher, except that manager's reply was, basically, that they are making progress towards being more environmentally friendly, but stopping the use of glitter "is not a step we are ready to take". Oh.

My daughter continued bringing home copious amounts of glitter-basted artwork. I wasn't ready to give up, so I, cheekily, printed off a couple of interesting articles on the environmental effects of glitter and slid them, quietly, onto the table at the staff room at the daycare. The manager might be a bit slow, I thought to myself, but it doesn't mean that the teachers won't catch on to the message eventually.

Then, at Christmas-time, the daycare dropped an even bigger bombshell. They gave each child a bag of glitter mixed with oats and sugar (called "reindeer food") and encouraged everyone to sprinkle it on their grass so that it would sparkle in the moonshine and attract "reindeer". ARE YOU NUTS!? I gasped to myself when I saw that letter (actually, I used more colorful language than that, but that's beside the point). In the evening I complained to my husband, "Don't they realise that mixing oats and sugar into the mixture is going to make the birds eat the glitter!?" Birds' tracheas are small. Pieces of glitter are going to damage their digestive tracts.

I wondered what to do about it and, eventually, wrote a letter directly onto the daycare's intranet site, for other parents to see. Please consider NOT sprinkling it on your lawn, I pleaded with them and explained the reasoning. You could use a plate in the kitchen instead and when the kids go to bed at night, chuck the glitter in your rubbish bin. I also asked the daycare, in the future, to NOT include glitter in the mixture; oats mixed with sugar will do.

It feels like a tiring, quiet war I am waging with people that, fundamentally, don't understand.

I look at people designing fancy, multi-level standalone buildings with many corners and think, ugh. The more corners and sides a building has, the more energy-consuming it is. It is harder to make it weather-tight, it's more expensive to maintain. I am not saying that all houses need to be rectangular boxes, but there has to be some balance in there, and currently there isn't. There is so little medium-density building in New Zealand it's not even funny.

A definition of "fair" share

I walk around every day asking myself, if every person in the world lived the way I am living - would there be enough resources? And the answer is that, at the moment... no. I think I am using more than my fair share. Not by much, but I am somewhere above the median: if every person in the world lived like me, we wouldn't have "enough" Earth to make it possible, I don't think.

The painful thing is though, in New Zealand terms I am a very insignificant consumer. Almost every item I own (apart from personal electronics and tools) is second-hand: clothing, furniture, kitchen utensils, appliances. We are a one-car family - which, in a low-density town, sometimes takes a fair amount of effort. (The car, itself, will probably be the last petrol-driven vehicle we own - a 2006 Honda it will probably last long enough for alternative methods of transport to be in place by the time we recycle it.) We are gradually establishing a garden. We are attempting, in the process of renovating our house, to use as many recycled items as possible/practical - to keep what we've got and improve it, rather than rip it out and replace it.

But we're not perfect. Just recently me and my husband flew for a two-night vacation in Auckland (a 3000-kilometre roundtrip) and my friend who is studying environmental systems rolled his eyes and said, "Oh, come on guys..." The year before our entire family flew from New Zealand to Europe. (Our first trip in 8 years.) It is a delicate balance to strike: trying to do what's necessary whilst living in the human community and trying not to piss too many people off in the process, and to allow some personal alleviances... Excuses, excuses, really.

So... how to do it, then?

I find solace in the words of Johan Rockström from Stockholm Resilience Centre who has said that, in order to de-carbonise the world, we need to halve our emissions every 10 years and double our renewable energy every 6 years. He himself has said that, the beauty of this approach is that it can be scaled: a country can do it, a local authority can, a person can. I can look at my own carbon footprint analytically and say, I need to halve it by 2029.

I find solace in this approach (moreso than others') because it gives me a baseline to work with, rather than leave me anxiety-ridden with every environmental mistake I've made. As long as I am working to halve my emissions at this rate, I say to myself, it's workable.

Find cleaning products with packages that are entirely biodegradable. Tick.
Find doggy poo bags which are biodegradable. Tick.
Replace plastic-based clothes with natural fibres, where possible / practical. Tick.
Re-sole shoes, rather than throw them out. Tick.

Bit by bit, find a way to reduce the current footprint.

At the moment, I look at the land around my house and admit that, ecologically-speaking, it's a wasteland. It's mostly grass - a lawn. We mow it with a petrol-powered mower - which we own - and the amount of "useful" land around my house is, I don't know, 10%. If that.

But! We don't use any herbicides or pesticides. Even now we have insects throughout the plants and birds on the trees around us. Over time as we establish plants and a garden, more and more of the land will be "useful": either edible plants which we will consume, or native plants necessary for the ecosystem. We aim to only have a small "clearing" in the back yard and the rest of it will be... used for something. Food. Plants. Buildings.

We eat meat, yes. But! Already I am pushing back the quantities. It is hard to do in a household where people have to merge their dietary preferences, but already I am asking myself, can I cook one more vegetarian meal tonight? Postpone the meat by a day. Then postpone another meaty meal by another day. Over a year, that actually makes a difference. (And, for the most part, my husband doesn't even know I am doing it.)

It's a bit like that David Roberts' article in the book I linked earlier today, "The Best American Science and Nature Writing", but wealthier people produce more carbon that poorer people. Period. It's good to recycle, yes, and sustainable / organic / etc makeup is better than something that is full of endocrine disruptors but... most carbon emissions come from lifestyle choices.

The size of houses.
Meat consumption.
Car use.
Vacation travel.

No amount of good-looking merino t-shirts and sustainably-grown cotton totes is going to offset someone who regularly flies across countries for fun and lives in a big house and has children. Period. No matter how many Instagram followers they have.

So these are the questions I pose to myself, and answers I attempt to come up with. But I find it frustrating that, whilst I ask these questions of myself, I have a large plethora of mostly older people - and, please!, don't start throwing things at me because I KNOW THERE ARE NICE OLD PEOPLE OUT THERE, and if you are reading this, chances are, you are one of them, but it doesn't change the fact that, as a whole, above-30's-and-40's are where bulk of the problems are - I have a large plethora of people around me who don't. They neither ask questions of themselves nor understand the need for it. (Meanwhile, New Zealand kids are planning to organise a mass-protest of school walkouts to demand action for climate change.)

I am learning to speak up, and trying to learn how to do it more gently. When someone says to me that Estonia will be better off for global warming, I try to talk to them about climate change instead. I explain that "global warming" doesn't, simply, mean that it will be warmer: it means there will be more adverse, unexpected weather. Bigger floods, longer droughts, stronger winds. There will be crops that will fail more often than before, coastal erosion that will affect people's home insurances, large-scale weather events that will damage property, delay work. New types of pests will move in, old types of animals will struggle to get by. Roads may become unsuitable for what they were built for, lakes may have too much algae to swim in. A good example is when in New Zealand, recently, train network had to be stopped for a time because warm weather made electrical lines sag. The company is now retro-fitting the entire network with cable-tensioners which are common in tropical countries - a large cost for something that had never been needed in New Zealand before.

Meanwhile, all this will happen in the background of world events where millions of people will be displaced and need a new home to go to. Is everyone ready for that?

It's, like, when a couple of weeks ago a certain orange man in the US was tweeting about the cold weather and saying how it proved that there was no global warming. I think it was the National Weather Service?, correct me if I'm wrong, who tweeted a reply something along the lines of: come on, for the last time, weather and climate are NOT the same thing.

Have you read The Water Will Come? My husband ranted for days after reading it, because he was so frustrated with the fact that it is already happening and, yet, here we are having these arguments over whether something needs to be done or not about it.

On the whole, these topics leave me exceptionally frustrated, but at the same time, I am hopeful. I know I cannot bear the weight of it alone, but I intend to bear it alongside others. I cannot directly affect the amount of renewable energy I am producing, for example, but I can vote in a way that makes a difference. (I will probably NEVER vote for a New Zealand National Party, ever. But that's probably already clear from the other social choices I am making.)

But it's hard. Hard. Hard. Hard.


  1. This post speaks to me so much. This is exactly how I feel. Frustrated and hopeful and trying to cope with it all. And yes, most of the frustration comes out of talking to (mostly older) people about things and yet they act like there is no tomorrow.
    Maybe it's a fools hope, but I am really hoping for a shift in concious thinking about our effect on environment as individuals.

  2. See on nii hea postitus. NII hea. Ja tänud The Best American… soovituse eest – ma polnud sellest sarjast kuulnudki.

  3. Edu Sulle sel teekonnal! ��