Sunday, September 29, 2013

Big foot

It turns out that I might be ....the weakest link in my household. We were taking a bit of an audit of electricity usage and as it happens, my heater uses *a lot* of our household electricity. I was a bit confronted by this information, as I think of myself as having a relatively light ecological footprint. I am a vegetarian, for crying out loud! I compost, grow stuff, refuse plastic bags, use public transport where possible and never use a clothes dryer. (Please don't get me started on people who use dryers!!). Surely all that counts for something?

But this situation I find myself in has caused me to reflect on how easy it is to become holier than thou on one aspect of our ecological footprint while ignoring other less comfortable areas.I also wonder whether I am perhaps focusing too much on low impact lifestyle changes and too little on the areas of greatest impact. So I decided to find out for myself which lifestyle choices can make the biggest difference to the environment. Thanks to the World Wildlife Fund online calculator, I have been informed that I am indeed a big foot - I'm using the equivalent of 1.7 planets or almost double my share. The average Australian uses the equivalent of 3 planets.

My ecological footprint results

So, what else did I discover? One of my biggest areas of impact is food. Initially I was surprised. A UN study entitled "Livestock's Long Shadow", indicates that eating meat is the number one consumer cause of global warming, above all types of transport combined. And according to the "What if" section below, if every Australian reduced the amount of animal products they consumed, we could reduce our ecological footprint by 18 million hectares! Yet, food is one of my biggest percentage items. I guess even a vegetarian diet takes a lot of agricultural land. Apart from going vegan or just eating less, which is probably not a bad idea, I can reduce the amount of packaged and imported foods that I consume. If Australians were to reduce the amount of packaging they use, we could reduce our footprint by 14 million global hectares!

My other big area was services. It seems that I am at the same time good (high use of public transport and recycling services), bad (high use of waste services, packaging, and possibly transport related to imported food) and confused (high electricity usage - but if it's renewable is it okay to use more?) which makes it hard to assess whether having a high percentage on the services slice of the pie is a good thing or not. However, given that the amount of land I use for energy is so high, that is one area I can definitely improve upon. If more Australians reduced their electricity usage through more efficient appliances, we could reduce our footprint by 2 million global hectares. If more Australians had solar panels (thereby reducing their *bad* electricity usage down to zero) we could reduce our footprint by 9 million global hectares.

Interestingly, although I travel by plane a lot for work, mobility was not my worst area. The fact that I mainly travel in Sydney by foot, bike, and bus apparently compensates for all the flying I do. Apparently if the average Australian reduced their car usage and increased their use of public transport, we could reduce our footprint by 9 million global hectares. Flights do contribute to 1 million of Australia's global hectares, however, so it's something I need to think seriously about.

Shelter was my smallest slice of the pie, possibly due to the fact that I live in a modest sized house with four others. We can share things that take up a lot of energy like a fridge and also be part of a food co-op. Interestingly, there were not any questions about how many children I have and whether the people I lived with were the result of my own procreation or somebody else's. I felt that should have been asked. An article entitled "The 5 most important things you can do for the environment" lists having fewer or no children as the number one thing we can do. While I take off my hat to those who choose not to have children for the sake of the environment, it's nice to know that my situation (childless, as one friend so delicately put it) lightens my impact somewhat. I'd like to know how many global hectares I'm saving through this sacrifice on everyone else's behalf!!

Interesting to note which areas can have the biggest impact

So while I'm still the weakest link, I probably won't be voted out of the house. They are a very reasonable bunch! But there's plenty of room for improvement. One day I might just have a job where I travel less, reduce my waste and packaging even more, eat vegan and local, and yes, be warm in winter because of my amazingly insulated green house that is heated using passive solar and boosted by as much solar energy to power that heater as I care to use! Ahhh! But until then, I plan to rug up, or take the advice of the student residence in Switzerland when the heating system broke down - go hug a flatmate! 

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Swimming goggles, lemons and a clanging noise

During a recent visit to Istanbul, I found myself closer to the action in Taksim Square than I had expected. Although it was just after about a month of regular protests and police involvement leading to some violence, the previous week had been very calm, and the hotel staff assured me that everything was fine. So, it seemed that I was still "exercising extreme caution" in DFAT's terms if I merely ventured across the Galata Bridge and into town to meet some friends at a cafe.

Street in Istanbul pre-gas
Given that Istanbul was the only city on this trip where I literally knew nobody, I was very grateful for the contact, and to be able to hang out with locals. I ordered a lemony drink and began asking my new friends all about their jobs and what brought them to Turkey. As we were talking, I glanced at the shelf behind, and noticed a pile of leaflets announcing a rally to be held the next day. I took a flyer, noted the place and time, but contrary to my usual practice, it was in order to avoid being there. My new friends agreed that I could do more for the cause by staying safe and joining in the online campaign than getting physically involved.

Then, as we were wandering down the cobblestone street and considering where to go next, we came across some people running down the hill quite quickly, in the way that I imagined a stampede might begin. I didn't know which way to turn, and was reminded again that I am not good in emergencies. My new friends ushered me into a nearby bar, but not before I was exposed to a faint gassy smell, and my eyes began to water. Police had begun to spray tear gas on protesters again and we were in the firing line.

Once we were safely inside the bar and things had quietened down, my new friends started telling me stories about the situation so far. They lived very close to Taksim Square and had heard the events unfold quite literally before their teary eyes. One guy reckoned he had been gased by proxy about 20 times in the past month. As we sat there, small groups of people walked past the window with mouths and noses covered by gas masks, handkerchiefs, and interestingly enough, swimming goggles. We did wonder where all the swimming goggles were coming from, and whether any suppliers thought it odd that they were suddenly in such high demand. They also mentioned that within a few hours of the first incidents, enterprising street vendors were spotted selling gas masks, lemons and other useful items that one might wish to purchase post-protest, in much the same way that there is always somebody selling umbrellas the minute it starts to rain. 
protest flyer

Stories of creativity and humour started to emerge as well. Apparently the government had been making some comments about people "making noise for no reason", so people had decided to do just that and began clanging pots and pans randomly as they went about their everyday business. Even when people were running past us with tears running down their faces from the gas, nobody turned on each other. There seemed to be an overall feeling of good-will, and I couldn't help being reminded of classes in Nonviolence with Stuart Rees, who talked of historical figures such as Gandhi and King using humour, creativity, and retaining their *human-ness* in the face of oppression or violence.

I spent the next day taking ferry rides and exploring the less touristy parts of town. It was great fun, particularly as Sunday is family day and "day off" in Istanbul, so everybody was out and about enjoying the sunshine and parks. As I reflected on this, I realised why access to a park in the centre of town was so important to people. As the hotel manager told me, the police also have families, and enjoy parks, so it is perplexing why they respond with such vigour to essentially non violent protests about an issue they themselves would most likely support, if they thought properly about it.