Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I read an interesting article today about the Cuban fuel embargo period, during which food and fuel shortages led to sustained weight loss and improved health in Cuba. As much as we’re willing to talk about simplicity and say “less is more” and “bigger isn’t always better”, when it comes down to it, mainstream western society (and not just western society) is driven by some idea of progress as always growing in size and wealth, having more, not just having better or being better. It seems ironic that it’s so difficult to embrace the health and lifestyle and environmental benefits of having less. What I’m afraid of is that if we don’t embrace having less, we’ll be forced into it, in fact many people already are. But this only affects those who already have too little, those who are at risk of starvation, the people living on the edge in Niger or Malawi or parts of Ethiopia, not those in North America who really do need to lose fifty pounds and gain some muscle in their legs.

Unfortunately, I read Oryx and Crake not long ago (and hated it all the way through, although possibly being at a refugee camp at the time didn’t help). With the constant talk of food shortages and economic crises and the growing impact of climate change, I can’t get Margaret Atwood’s image of the future out of my mind.

It seems so simple: those in the west, in North America which is using far more than its share, need to use less. Less meat, less junk food, less junk, less fuel, better life. Then we need to invest in technologies that will allow us to keep what we need: solar capture, hybrid cars, sustainable agriculture, low-flow showers, whatever. And we need to help developing countries access these technologies too. It’s not rocket science, and any economic or environmental think tank can tell you basically how to do it. So why the **** aren’t we doing it?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people lately about how desperately poor Ethiopia is – or at least is perceived to be. The roads are awful, especially in Tigray region. Electricity, water and phone infrastructure are inconsistent. And as one friend noted, there’s little evidence of development: few international companies or resource extraction industries are based in Ethiopia. My argument is that these things – which are most obvious to us from the west – have little impact on actual quality of life for the majority of Ethiopians, which has improved dramatically in the past twenty years. Is Ethiopia as poor as we think?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

There is electricity tonight, for a change. It’s taken me a while to find out the reason for the frequent power outages. There is a schedule, although I don't know what that schedule is, communication being what it is here. It would seem the unseasonal dryness in Ethiopia this year means there is not enough water to power the hydroelectric dams that provide electricity for most of the country. So we’re having rolling blackouts. I am so used to having power, even here. Until now we have usually had not more than a few hours without power each week. It’s frustrating going into work with a load of computer work and photocopying to do and having no power for the whole day, and it usually doesn’t come back on till about ten o’clock at night. My favourite beeswax candle is now down to nothing. But it certainly does make me aware of how much I take electricity for granted, as my colleagues do too. In some ways it’s strange, because it was only a few years ago that there was no electricity here at all. At the college lounge, as at most cafes in town, we now have a fancy coffee machine. And although last year (before coffee machine – BCM!) coffee was made using the traditional method. Now this is verboten, and it seems to be asking a lot to simply boil water for tea when the power is out. I’m just as bad, and I do appreciate it when power failures land on our workshop days. But if I happen to be in the office, I’ll stare wistfully at the computer and flick the light switch regularly, even though I know there’s no way that power’s coming back on before nine at night. I might take the opportunity to go visit a school, or I might go for a walk after work, but come darkness, I’ll be sitting in my house counting the minutes till the power comes back on.

I will be returning in a couple of months to one of the richest countries in the world. Unfortunately, much of her wealth is dependent on huge investment in economically and environmentally unsustainable industry. Perhaps it is because I am working in a country that is just at the beginning of its modern development that I am particularly conscious of sustainability. Or because of the overwhelming awareness of climate change and the population and food pressures that it exacerbates. I am increasingly worried about the need in all countries for development that is sustainable. Development is ultimately only economically and socially sustainable if it is environmentally sound. So as I return to Canada, I wonder about how truly developed we are, and how we might shift our development onto another path that might bring greater sustainability and security.