May 29, 2008

Failing the climate quiz

Yesterday, right after work, my division had a meeting about the climate. Some of the questions were about how we thought the climate changes would affect our work. I can't really see any direct influence on my work as a graphics designer. Indirectly, there are heaps.

The climate changes has made us aware of how humans influence even big systems like the global temperature. Now, I belong to the camp that doesn't believe that all the changes are solely due to people, but we do pollute. A lot. And I am happy that the climate is making people focus on pollution again.

We had a quiz and I did very badly. I guessed that emissions, electricity use, waste, etc. were far lower than they actually are. For example, did you know that it takes 75 kg of materials to make one cell phone? (I guessed 15 kg and thought that was a bit much.) And 1000 metric tons of water?

I wonder what it took to make my beloved Mac. I haven't thought about much more than that the machine is manufactured in Shanghai, China, which is pretty far away for a computer that is destined for Norway. It is made up of various metals and plastics and I have to dispose of it as "special waste" because there are batteries and heavy metals in it.

Ideally, I should be able to recycle my old computers. Ideally, everything I use should be at least 70 % recyclable. I think 70 % is a good number. I actually don't know. That was what I became aware of during the quiz: I really don't know how much waste any of us is responsible for.

Perhaps the fact that I have a simple lifestyle, own no car, walk to work, and tend to keep things until they wear out has made me unaware of the realities of the things that are in my life. I wonder what it would take to buy only local food, or only ecological or even non-polluting (that would be local + ecological)? I imagine that it would limit my choices. Norway has a limited agriculture and growth season though it's been a bit extended with hot-houses. But that last is probably not "green", either, since it requires heating and artificial watering. (Norway does get 90 % of its power from water, but that figure used to be 95 %; we have been increasing our use of fossil fuels for power.) In the old days, people canned and pickled and dried products to make them last through the winter. Nowadays, there is no winter in the stores. Summer products are available all year round, simply by putting them in refrigerated containers and flying them halfway around the globe from a country in the middle of summer to a country in the middle of winter.

I live in a country that depends on imports. The thing is, all of humanity has shipped things everywhere for centuries. The spice trade, the tea trade, even the slave trade all transported goods (and people) from one continent to another. The thing is, sailing ships don't give off the same emissions or use tons of fossil fuel like today's container ships do. I think that if we are going to cut emissions, we actually have to slow down. We have to go back to letting things take time: No overnight mail unless it's a body part for a waiting transplant patient. If we order books from overseas, there is no expedited shipping; your package goes "surface mail" (but there could be more downloadable PDFs, for example, to cut down on the shipping and even making of books). Foreign countries that grow delicious fruits and vegetables, may have to dry or can them for export, because they will no longer be flown.

But it would be just as hard to change Norwegian habits as it would be to stop China's new love affair with cars and western materialism. Had I been born in Norway, I would have been born in a poor country. Norwegians didn't start to gain any real personal wealth until the early 80's; the yuppie era was the first time Norwegians had money to spend frivolously (some too frivolously). The wealth has increased, and so has the spending - and the Norwegians love not being poor any more. But the fascination with materialism makes it hard to find inspiration to be "green". Norway builds like the US: Far outside the city center, in suburbs accessible only by car. The town I live in allows huge "big box" stores to build in places inaccessible by bus or foot, and no provisions made for public transportation to them. In fact, most of the shops have left downtown Bergen, turning Norway's second largest city into a "café town" because that's what you're likely to find. (This "policy" has annoyed me for years; did you know that downtown Bergen has no furniture stores except for the Salvation Army's shop Fretex and a couple of exclusive boutiques? A core population of 100,000 people have to leave town to buy a bed.) At least the Norwegian government recently put in a moratorium on building more shopping malls, which encourage car use.

Still, they say we can only start with our own habits. I will continue to ride the bus, and I will try to be more aware of where my produce comes from. I may end up giving up a lot of goodies, including fresh avocados and fresh dates. And my beloved ayurvedic teas... (Whaa!) But if such sacrifices mean avoiding six continuous months of rainy, cloudy weather every year, then I'm all for it. Because that's what our winters have turned into and that sort of weather brings even happy people down.

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