Christian Smetana: Whether it’s climate catastrophe, wasting resources, or growing waste, where should we start first?
Ulrike Gelbmann: We face a real ecological catastrophe. But an even bigger problem is the starting point for our efforts. Nothing can succeed without defeating poverty and hunger. As early as 1987, the Brundtland Report, the first substantial document on sustainable development, pointed out that poverty and hunger create a situation in which the world is vulnerable to ecological crises and other disasters. As long as we have so many countries with uncontrolled hunger and poverty, we can forget about overcoming the climate crisis because we won’t get their support.
CS: But shouldn’t we try anyway?
UG: Of course we have to try, but I’m disturbed by the self-righteousness and short-sightedness that often dominates this discussion in our part of the world. Don’t get me wrong, every square meter of rainforest that’s destroyed is a terrible mistake. But being a European and pointing at Bolsonaro and his henchmen—screaming, the Brazilians are destroying the Amazon and our climate—that’s just a bad joke. Every day in Germany, an area the size of about 80 soccer fields is sealed and covered with concrete. Three quarters of the area of Austria was once covered by forest. Most of the primeval forests in Europe have been ruined. For centuries, we’ve been destroying ecosystems on a grand scale. Now, we want to make economically weaker regions of the world responsible for climate catastrophe? It isn’t as simple as that.
CS: Even if we focus only on the food industry and on our behavior as consumers in the supermarket, we face complex problems. What’s important to consider?
UG: Unfortunately for us, it isn’t easy to make the right decisions. Anyone who offers simple answers is lying. You have to use a cotton bag 400 times to make its eco balance better than that of a plastic bag. Even people with an ecological awareness still think in the wrong direction too often. For example, many people in Austria demand a one-way deposit system. They mean well.
It’s argued that such a system can reduce pollution and achieve collection rates the EU requires, demanding the introduction of a one-way deposit system. Without question, this take is right, but the actual problem lies somewhere else. The one-way deposit system doesn’t lead to fewer plastic bottles being produced in the world. The reusable deposit system must be expanded. That’s much more important.
CS: What are you suggesting?
UG: No general answer covers all needs. But disposable deposits and waste separation are often pursued because these systems give consumers the idea they protect the environment. It’s true and wrong at the same time. The only thing that really helps is comprehensive reduction. Consume less and produce less waste. That helps.
In the food trade, for example, is a great potential in the reduction of glass waste. To me, it’s unclear why pickled vegetables come in disposable glass. The lids break after a few uses, but they can be replaced. It makes no sense that so many glass bottles are disposable. That can be avoided. But even that truth remains complex and has a lot to do with our feelings. A disposable plastic bottle is much better for the environment than a disposable glass bottle. But we feel differently.
CS: Can you give a few examples?
UG: We think in much too narrow terms. We complain about plastic and buy bamboo toothbrushes. But bamboo plantations are often the consequence if not the cause of rainforest deforestation. We read books and newspapers on tablets, which are sources of various ecological and social disasters. In our supermarkets, we put fruits and vegetables in bags made of biodegradable, sustainable plastic. We feel good about it.
These bags aren’t produced from the surpluses that we have. Instead, the raw material, cheap sugarcane, is grown in Argentina. Hunger in Argentina was largely displaced. Now, it’s back, because farmers there can no longer grow what they need. Instead, they cultivate sugarcane for export, for our bags or bioethanol fuel. It’s madness. Besides, bags made of bioplastic don’t turn into compost without the right composting method. We don’t use that method in our country.
CS: You’re saying the system is ineffective and often used in a naive way?
UG: Yes. As another example, regional products are good. That’s true. But if you buy a tomato in Vienna in December that was grown in another Austrian province, you can be sure the energy used to produce that tomato in a greenhouse is greater than the energy used to bring a tomato from sunny southern Europe. Regionality, therefore, makes sense only if we take seasonality into account.
It can be the other way around, too. A returnable glass bottle transported more than 200 km is ultimately worse, from an ecological point of view, than a plastic bottle. Recycling is wonderful. But speaking of entropy, recycling is possible only with additional energy. Much more energy than with any form of reuse.
CS: Recycling is good, but it’s better when recycling is unnecessary. Plastic is bad, but it’s not as bad as everyone thinks. Organic is good, but not always. Using something again is crucial, but doing so solves only some of the problems. Bioplastic is fine for us but a nightmare for the Global South. Europe must move forward, but without eliminating poverty in the world, we’ll never get anywhere. Can you give us any hope?
UG: Replacing one resource with another fixes little. An e-car, for instance, isn’t even the second best choice if you take things such as carsharing or using public transport into account. It doesn’t work, asking people to want less or buy less, or to buy more organic, to do this or that. It’s important how you deal with people. We must change our actions and our culture. Doing so will succeed only in very small steps.
That’s why we’re researching, at the University of Graz, a very large project on the topic of raising awareness. We can reach children easily. They care about the environment. But we need to reach adults. The best, maybe the only way, to do so is education. Teaching comprehensive consciousness is crucial. All over the world, our societies are drifting apart. We need the exact opposite—to become aware of our behavior, our surroundings, and our environment. It’s all interrelated, and we need to learn more about it.
Two sentences by Heinz von Foerster are very important to me. In one, he says, “At each and every moment, I can decide who I am.” And with his categorical imperative, he says, “Always act in such a way that the number of possibilities grows.” Well, that’s a way back to the topic of entropy. Consciousness, education, and personal responsibility are what it comes down to in the end.
Dr. Ulrike Gelbmann is the Senior Postdoc Researcher at the Institute of Systems Sciences, Innovation, and Sustainability Research at the University of Graz, Austria. She also heads the Curricula Commission for the Master’s program in Global Studies at the University of Graz. Besides teaching and publishing, Dr. Gelbmann works on numerous projects on sustainability and waste management. She has won several awards for her extensive work in these areas.