Journals from Abroad #1

20170814_180827

It’s 5.25 in the morning. The excitement in my gut has woke me. Or possibly the deep pit of anxiety that made its home in my stomach in the last three weeks. Exams of the fourth semester in Germany were over, I only had to write three more essays. And pack. How do you pack a suitcase for half a year? I would be staying in Sweden over the winter. Which item could you not need? When we were getting in the car I decided to leave the Christmas-tree necklace, and the third warm jacket at home. Minimalism? I tried.

It’s Saturday and today I will arrive at my destination. I never dreamt I would get there. Last autumn I started applying to universities abroad. Last winter I shuffled around folders of paper, sent dozens of emails, and made myself known in the ERASMUS office at our university. “You again” I heard her say in her head, every time she saw me. Somehow, I got the place I wanted. Just an email. While studying for environmental economics. “Bla bla bla, the double dividend is a tool that enforces higher environmental taxes in order to lower unemployment and…”

“Congratulations, you have received a spot at the university of Halmstad for the coming winter semester.”

Out of the blue. I sat in the library with that email on my phone. I went to the bathroom for a moment, let out a scream of which I until this day do not know which emotion it contained, and returned to studying. “Its basic idea is shown in the following graphs…”

20170817_101646

Now I’m here, in a small house in the forest. Outside the rain droops from the trees and bounces of the roof and the red wooden walls. The rain has been going on for two days now. The towels don’t dry anymore, nor does the toilet paper. But we have been granted a few sunny days, too. Swedish summer- 15 degrees. My friends are scattered over the world. Lilli went to Australia, Izzy to Costa Rica, and Hannah sits in her winter clothes on Iceland. 12 degrees there. The locals run around in shorts and tops, she has fished her gloves out of her suitcase.

Summer in Sweden, especially in the forest is not like the summer I know from Germany. It is calmer, somehow, dignified. We sat in our green plastic chairs all day with our faces in the sun and tried to absorb as much energy as we could. I will need it in those dark days. I’m not as far north as it would change anything, but still. I ate my way through several books, starting off with a piece by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”. Toni Morrison… She has been sitting on my bookshelf for months and I never started. Wish I had. Every character is in its way so unique, every plot line so intricate. She introduces an important scene of the main character through the eyes of a minor one. She develops ties that are so flexible and strong that you would never guess what the character does next- but you feel their dilemma. It’s a book the humble writer can learn a lot from.

20170813_135008

“I’ve never been to a place so silent”, my dad said. Free from human noise pollution, that is. Nature makes itself known through the tender rain, the dancing of the trees, the birds at night, and the bees circling around. In the forest, you can hear the mosses breathe. I read “The signature of all things” by Elizabeth Gilbert last week and her main character studies mosses for the best part of her life. I kneeled down in the woods, caressing the tiny structures that presented themselves in front of me. Illuminated by the afternoon sun. In the forest I could zoom in, live as an admirer of the small. And I could look at the rocks and trees above and marvel at their greatness. The forest slows my steps. It heals my soul.

We drove off the ferry onto the motorway to Göteborg and there were street signs. And I could read them. For one year I studied Swedish with duolingo. Learning words I thought I’d never need and now I saw them. On the street signs in Sweden. My dad couldn’t quite understand the wonder I felt. But to this day, the language had somehow existed in my head (I knew it was real, I had been in Sweden before, but ignorant of its grammar and word structure).

20170818_211222

The forest filled our batteries. We read and we cooked and we wandered about. We laughed at the geese that stumbled across the street from one lake to the other in front of our car. We thanked the man who brought us fresh mushrooms he had picked in the forest. They were delicious. We counted shooting stars one night, sitting with chairs and blankets in the middle of a path. When we got to four, we started ranking them. We stopped at 17 because we were freezing and couldn’t remember the numbers anymore. We jumped into the lake and scared off the fish. We picked wild berries on our walks and let their juice wash away the insignificant worries in our stomachs.

It was a beautiful time in a place of calmness. I’m terrified of the next week and what it might bring. But for now, everything is peaceful.

Advertisements

You want a pony? I want a tree.

IMG_20170426_164356

I skipped a lecture and went to the river with my bike in the gorgeous morning hours. I met a deer. It was munching some grass twenty metres away.

Sometimes I feel like I have a deeper connection to the trees around the city than to the city itself. This will probably also be the one thing I miss when I move: The forest at the river side.

Leaving my phone at home gives me so much joy. I ignore the appointments, the to-do lists, the stress. My head clears up the second I don’t hear car noises anymore but birds singing. They are so loud that even the deer jumped. A blackbird had started a conversation with a friend next to him.

In my childhood the coolest job I could imagine was a ranger in a national park. I grew up watching nature documentaries. I dreamed about walking through the woods and taking care of everything that lived there. Now this dream doesn’t seem so far anymore. My dad jokes that I will be studying forestry one day. I laugh it off but – why not? I feel more drawn to the great outsides than to most people. And what a better environment for a writer than a forest?

We had a lecture yesterday about energy generation and consumption through the years. We were left with a dark glimpse into the future: We will never be able to reach the 2°C goal if we go on burning fossil fuels. Even if we don’t, that would mean our society had to transform into an electricity society. Which isn’t possible in just a few years. We in Germany, for example, will never reach the goals for 2020 we have set for ourselves.

All these analyses terrified me and I searched for a solution. If we can’t decrease the amount of carbon we are emitting, then at least we can do everything to capture it and not let it go into the atmosphere. Along with cutting your consumption it’s the best you can do: Plant trees.

Our Blue Planet

“We need to respect the oceans and take care of them as if our lives depended on them. Because they do.” Sylvia Earle

Sylvia Earle

She calls herself the ambassador of the fish. Sylvia Earle is a marine biologist and also the first woman to become chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Time magazine named her the first Hero of the Planet. With a record of walking on the sea bed, deeper than anyone before, she holds the title “Her Deepness”. I admire her work and her passion. She produces the facts: Our oceans are endangered by our actions and we have to do something about it. In a speech she urges us to protect this fragile ecosystem with all we have.

Climate Change

Nowadays, 40% of the world population live in coastal areas. Climate change causes a sea level rise which endangers the livelihood of whole societies. We can counteract global warming, the sea level rise, the acidification of the oceans, and the extinction of marine species – by cutting our emissions.

With my friend I discussed why people haven’t thought climate change earlier. “They took it for granted, just as we take our water for granted right now.” I was sipping on my cup of tea. Stared into the cup. She was right. We don’t think long-term. Our economies even less. Short-term benefits. Maximal profit.

Fishing

Our professor told us that in former times salmons were fed to pigs for nutrients. Today, 90% of the big fish in the oceans are gone. Only 10% of the tuna is left. Take the average pig or chicken you eat. It doesn’t get very old. A few months? Maybe one year? An average tuna has to grow for 10-14 years to mature. With today’s fishing strategies the tuna we fish get younger and younger. There are no old ones left.

Tuna are very large carnivores. They have eaten a lot of fish in their lives. Pigs eat concentrated feed. They didn’t munch on thousands of fish before you bought them packaged in little pieces. “Fish are much more valuable alive than dead.” Sylvia Earle said. Which is true for everything in our planet’s environment.

The currently used fishing techniques are designed to having by-catch. If you catch a large fish with today’s technique, there are 100 other fish or marine animals on the fishing rod. We take the fins of sharks who are still alive and throw the animals back into the ocean. 50% of the coral reefs are gone. Destroyed by humans. We are taking and taking and taking.

Polluting the oceans

We are also putting stuff back into the ocean. The entanglement of marine animals in plastics has increased by 40% in the last decade. “Reports revealed that all known species of sea turtles, about half of all species of marine mammals, and one-fifth of all species of sea birds were affected by entanglement or ingestion of marine debris.” The study was done on 663 species.

We are not only polluting the water by plastics. We drill deep holes in the ground. We rip the sea bed apart. We let oil spill for weeks, months. We dig for minerals. We put hazardous waste into the oceans. We get rid of our atomic waste. Oceans are our dumping ground. Small fish eat those substances. They are eaten by bigger fish. Toxics accumulate. Until we have them on our plates.

The importance of oceans

Life started in the oceans. They contain 97% of the earth’s water. They drive a huge water cycle providing us with precipitation. They keep the earth cool. Water has an incredible heat and carbon storage capacity. Oceans deal with our high emissions. I don’t know how long they will be able to do so. CO2 turns into carbonic acid. This damages and kills corals. It messes with fragile ecosystems. Oceans drive our climate. The system is on the brink to fall apart. It will take us with it.

Seas are complex, diverse and sensitive ecosystems. We need to take better care of them. As W. H. Auden said: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”

 

(This is an edited article I wrote for last year’s Nanowrimo over on my other blog)

Coal mining in Germany – Future or past?

mine

“You have to see this,” Hannah said, “so that you know what you will be fighting against.”

The region where I study is famous for its lignite. In our raw materials course we visited a coal mine and a power plant. It was raining the entire day just as if nature wanted to show us that she still was in charge.

I sat there with my note app on my phone and typed everything which came to my mind. “I could do that all my life”, I thought. Going places, writing articles.

Who kills the trees?
When we arrived in the mine we saw diggers shift soil over hundreds of metres. They excavate on the right, mine in the middle, close the mine on the left. The top soil and the vegetation were already gone. I thought of the person who operated the machines to rip all trees away; my heart ached a little. One metre soil per day are transported this way. We gasped at the dimension of the deep wounds people had cut into mother Earth.

The soil under our feet was sterile; you could wait centuries and nothing would grow. When they close the mine, they put this on the bottom of the mine and the clay on top. At some places there are trees and shrubs again. Miners call it re-cultivation. “Our contribution to nature conservation” it said on a sign. I have an idea for the conservationists: Leave the coal in the ground.

Our coal for our future

In 2020 the nuclear power plants in Germany will close down. I often heard the phrase: “We need more coal to compensate”. It’s true that the capacity of renewable energies is not large enough to meet our demands yet. The government discussed whether mining should go on. Coal is always there, people say, you need sun and wind for renewables, and they are “completely inefficient and pointless”, the people in our truck said. “Don’t listen to the them, we are their competitors”, Lilli whispered.

We often argue that we have two choices when we finish studying: Go into the industry, make money, dump our values. Or safe the world without making any money. I’m all in for the second option. But through which one do I have a greater influence?

A place on the moon

“We talked about all these costs and measures,” our guide said, “now let’s go to where the money is.” We went down to the place where they mine the coal and someone said “Wow, this looks like a transport band in a sushi restaurant”. To me, it looked like the moon which hadn’t washed its feet for some time.

From the other visitors of the mine I heard “I would love to see how it looks in thirty years”. Dear me, I would love for the fossil fuel industry to be shut down in thirty years.  Of course we saw the excursion from an environmental perspective. I think the miners had never seen so many critics of their work in one group before. It was hard to contain ourselves. Is it naive to think that we will someday stop exploiting earth?

Burning our future

In the end of the excursion we visited the power plant where the coal is burned. There were a lot of gigantic buildings with thousands of wires and pipes and metal frames. It all looked dead. There were no people around, you could just read the comments and pictures someone scribbled on the walls. In an average shift, 23 people work in the entire complex. Now please repeat the argument that lignite mining produces jobs.

Clean and green

Our guide didn’t care to mention the CO2 that is coming out of the cooling tower. Water vapour, sure. But CO2? He forgot about that. The tour around the power plant felt like an advertisement. He presented to us the shiniest new inventions they were implementing to clean the smoke gases. But they are still greenhouse gases. You had to be careful and ask a lot of questions to dig towards the truth. This is what we are studying for.

Lessons learned

We went through the mines and power plants with a fascination that was almost morbid. We had the environment in the back of our heads. We knew that this was what we will be fighting against every day after we graduate. Coal is not the future, it can never be the future. We have a lot of work to do.