Touring the World for Sustainability

To convince a 16-year old Greek boy that a dish without meat still counts as real meal, you might need to resort to drastic means. Jonas and Greg were ready to do so and together with the students of one of Thessaloniki’s high schools, they went through the life cycle of 1kg of beef. From the cow to its edible version and through all the hidden consequences that such a harmless piece of food actually has...

Photo: green2bee
Gregory and Jonas used some free time to visit the pyramids when they were in Egypt. Because of the Arab Spring there were almost no tourists.

Jonas and Greg had just finished their Master in Environmental Mangagement and Policy at the University of Lund, Sweden, in October 2010. But after two years of studying, they felt that discussing sustainability and environmental protection in Sweden was like preaching to the converted. The University of Lund is, not without reason, a world hub of environmental science! But how powerful are such ideas in other European countries? Can you convince companies in Turkey to be more energy efficient? How do you argue with teenagers in France that it might be manageable not to buy a new mobile phone every year?

After all, it's all about information and creating publicity for ideas and visions.

Greg and Jonas decided they had not yet learned enough and started planning their journey throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia. And, well, if they were going to plan a world trip, they weren't going to do it by halves! So they set up a homepage and a blog, borrowed a video camera, started a crowd funding call, wrote to innumerable potential sponsors and let their networks take effect play. "Our institute in Lund is extremely well connected; that helped a lot! We contacted more than 100 alumni all over the world and most of them are naturally involved in environmental projects of some sort. Then we were lucky to find some generous sponsors in Real Russia and Eurail to cover our travel expenses."

On September 1st, they came back from their 18-week 'Sustainability World Tour' through 19 countries, from Holland to China and from Finland to Egypt and now, only a few days later, they share their impressions and most memorable insights with us.

Teaching and Learning

Photo: green2bee
Green2bee school workshop about the life-cycle impact of products in Vreden, Germany. 

When I asked Jonas how exactly to imagine a 'Sustainability World Trip', he explains: "The perfect week on our tour would include the following stops in each country: a school to visit and to discuss one of the most relevant environmental issues in the respective country with the pupils; a company where we would hold a workshop concerning sustainable production methods and, thirdly, an interesting project or NGO addressing local environmental problems in a creative way. Where we encountered good ideas we filmed them, took a picture or wrote them down in order to spread the word through our blog.”

After all, it's all about information and creating publicity for ideas and visions. Greg and Jonas are convinced that this is the way to get citizens to change their consumption patterns, politicians to decide stricter laws and companies to make sure that their suppliers fulfill at least the most basic environmental standards. "Of course, we are aware that our impact is limited to a very small scale; we were looking for the direct discussion with those whose decisions determine our carbon footprint today, the heads of companies worldwide, and with the younger generation whose decisions shape what our planet will look like in the future."

Photo: Jonas Sonnenschein
Eco-house project bordering a national park close to Helsinki, Finland. Low-impact solitude guaranteed.

The range of issues discussed varied, depending on where they travelled and who they met. "Water scarcity is obviously a more important topic in the South of Europe and in the Middle East. In Amman, the capital of Jordan, many people depend on a weekly delivery of water which they store in a tank on their roof. This amount has to suffice for drinking, cooking and washing during a whole week. Imagine actually seeing your vital resource of water gradually melting away in a matter of days!" The importance of water supply and efficient consumption is easily forgotten in countries like Sweden, where this precious resource is so easily available; you just have to turn on the tap for seemingly endless supply. In norther Europe and in Germany and Austria, green construction and the energy efficient renovation of old buildings are more cutting-edge issues.

"In our function as consultants to companies we usually brought forward efficiency arguments and compared costs of investment and of energy consumption. But the increasing awareness and public interest for environmental issues everywhere (not only in the North of Europe!) strengthens the cause for green standards beyond purely cost-related arguments."

Photo: green2bee
Demonstrations for more democracy under the white tower of Thessaloniki, Greece.

Companies who don't want to risk a serious public scandal are increasingly aware of green marketing and meticulous about their suppliers' certificates. According to Jonas and Greg, this shift from merely obeying the most basic rules dictated by the state towards building up an environmentally friendly reputation is an economic strategy which has increasingly gained momentum all over Europe. In the Middle East, by contrast, subsidised fuel makes it more difficult to convince companies to invest in energy efficient technolgoy. "Fuel is just too cheap to make such investments profitable and public awareness is not yet strong enough to break a CEO's neck for using antiquated, extremely polluting production techniques."

Economic growth, higher incomes, cheaper products due to ever-increasing efficiency gains; all that leads to more and more consumption.

Do we Need a Crisis?

But in general, Jonas is optimistic after the world tour. He has the impression that even among young people environmental subjects are constantly present and their importance is recognised. "This generation has grown up with terms like 'climate change'. It was really great to see that in most countries, teenagers already have quite an accurate idea of the problems ahead." However, Jonas further observes that while people around Europe are increasingly aware of consumption choices, it is extremely difficult to make them reduce their volume of consumption! Economic growth, higher incomes, cheaper products due to ever-increasing efficiency gains; all that leads to more and more consumption.

Photo: green2bee
Unsustainable graffiti in Rennes, France. The picture of the 'stuff-monster' that squeezes a heart is slowly washed away by rain.

But the 'right to buy' seems to be a deep-seated conviction. "There are interesting differences between countries, here as well," observes Jonas. "While in Holland people are used to living very closely together and their houses are generally built on little space, Swedes are used to vast space and build their houses far from each other so that they have to use the car more often. But try to tell a Swede to renounce to one or two rooms so that he needs less energy to heat; he would probably take it as offence to his personal freedom!"

It seems as if people first need a real crisis to accept that they can and must survive with fewer goods; that they will have to learn to spend their free time without constantly consuming it. "Greece is a good example; after the crisis fuel has become very expensive and of course, many people now live with less income. As difficult as this is, at least it has reduced traffic in Thessaloniki by 30%!"

Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Czech Republic, Germany, France, Holland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Mongolia and China... 19 countries in 18 weeks. Jonas is still tired from the trip and happy not to live out of the suitcase anymore. "I just moved to Slovenia, actually. And I'm happy to stay here for a while. It's somehow cosy. All of the countries we visited were absolutely fascinating; however I just couldn't live in Egypt for example. The traffic in Cairo is violent and so is the heat! But as happy as I am to be home, never before have I learned so much in such a short time."

5. Stay informed & involved

If you don't know about the impact of your consumption, it's hard to improve your behaviour. Read newspapers, magazines, blogs, or even a whole book on sustainable consumption. Get involved in sustainable initiatives to improve the quality of life in your area. And share your knowledge and interests with people around you!

4. Check your diet

The aspect of our consumption that we connect most easily to nature is food. All the grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meat that we eat every day have different environmental impacts. Read up the impacts of different products and adapt your diet! Small hint: red meat has an enormous water and carbon footprint!

3. Choose low impact mobility

Check what is the most sustainable but also feasible way to get to work. Is it possible to walk or cycle? Can you make use of public transport? Are other people commuting on the same route who you could start car pooling with? Be strategic and combine business trips with holidays! And if you don't want to mess up your carbon footprint: don't fly!

2. Slow down

The formula "work less, so that you earn less and consume less and have more time and be happier" sounds weird at first. Sometimes working and earning more is necessary to make a living. In many other cases it is supposed to finance a better life in which the time is missing in the end. Does this apply to some of the decisions you have taken? Then remember it for future decisions. Free time is often better than "stuff".

1. Consume not just better but also less

Don't lie to yourself! Of course, it is good to recycle waste, not to use plastic bags, buy energy-saving light bulbs, organic cotton and organic food. But if the total volume of your consumption – the computers, mobile phones, "necessary" flights, extensive hot showers etc – doesn't decrease, you don't do much good to the environment. The efficiency of individual products is outweighed by the sheer amount of goods and services we consume. Don't just green your appearance, but make your life-style truly sustainable! Not easy...


Teaser Photo: green2bee

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