Earth Day and dimming the lights on our bright future

I want to write more about climate change and environmental problems but I often don’t know what to say. On one hand so much has been said and written already. On the other hand it feels like so many influential and powerful people who can decide and implement real solutions still live on planet Mars, not planet Earth. One very powerful and influential world leader recently said that he has an ‘open mind’ about it and then someone else commented that there is a thin line between an ‘open mind’ and ‘no mind’.

I don’t need any more convincing. Our beautiful home planet Earth is screaming for attention, begging for help and solidarity and shouting out warnings left and right. Who can count how many times we have heard the words  that “we are near the edge”, that “we need to act together now” and that “tomorrow will be too late to reverse many of the trends”.

This week I was in the mood for some intelligent conversation on economics, sustainable development and the changing world order. So I listened to Jeffrey Sachs (follow the link) who is known as one of the world’s leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty. He also teaches in Columbia University, USA and has been a special advisor to the UN Secretary General for almost two decades. People like him speak with knowledge but also with hope and vision because human beings have never been smarter and more technologically advanced to address these problems and actually solve them.

We listen to the science and we know that there are some conflicting views but there is an overwhelming consensus that we, the people, are bringing some of the systems to irreversible breaking point. Previous generations procrastinated but we cannot afford to. Just ask the Chinese government if they have an ‘open mind’ about it. I think it is high on the list of their priorities because 1,3 billion people will let them know how unhappy they are if these disasters are not averted.

I don’t need the scientists when I live in Thailand and see the effects of fast development. The city is growing, the shopping malls and centers are popping up like mushrooms (I think of all the air conditioning needed in this hot climate), the water canals are so full of chemicals and the drainage stinks like there is pure poison running under the ground, Then there is the ever-worsening smog because of cars and slash-and-burn practices. The forests are getting cleared for quick money and the fastest way is to simply burn it. There were days when I was sweeping ashes in our apartment. And don’t get me started about the plastic on the ground and in the waters!

Few months ago we had the Taize ecumenical gathering of Christians from many traditions and European nations in Riga, Latvia. There was a seminar titled “What can we do for our common home, the earth? Reflection on urgent environmental questions based on Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si” (follow the link to download). There was lots of facts and good research, lots of good discussions and practical ideas on personal level. What can I as an individual do in my own life to lessen the ecological impact on our systems – water, biodiversity, non-renewable resources, etc?

I will admit I have not read Pope Francis’ encyclical yet but intend to. I have heard much about it but not enough in the church circles. Actually to those of us who attend church regularly I want to ask, “how many sermons have you heard on creation care and environment?” I think many of us would reply, “None!” I have hear one sermon and that was a few years ago in Wales. I still remember all the points and stories and the Bible verses because it got my attention.

“For most of us and most of the time, we can’t know what will happen. But what we can know is what should happen and that is a “should” from a moral point of view. We can know what’s important to happen. With technical knowledge, we can know what is possible to happen. And then our responsibility as moral agents is to make what is possible to happen.” (Jeffrey Sachs)

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(photos from personal archive)

A good city is like a good party…

Bangkok, Hong Kong, Cairo, London, Beijing, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Manila… some of the biggest and most densely populated urban areas I have visited or spent an extended time.

I smile when I think about many people I know in Latvia who complain when they have to go to the “big city” of Riga, our capital. They start talking about the cars, the people, the noise, the bad air… I think to myself, “You have no idea what it means to have lots of traffic, crowds, concrete, noise and air pollution.”

I love these cities and I hate them. I love them because there are so many things to do and see and I hate them because it takes ‘forever’ to get to those places. I love them because there is so much energy and creativity and I hate them because these cities ‘never’ sleep. I love them because they offer many good jobs and I hate them because they take people away from other places they don’t actually want to leave. I love them because there are so many people to be loved and I hate them because there is so much social injustice.

I am a city girl but I am also a country girl. I feel good in both and I need both. I think how the human story starts in the Garden of Eden and it continues in the new City. It sounds like there is an amazing place awaiting us. Maybe it is as nice and clean and green and enjoyable as Singapore and then hundred times better. I do believe that God must be an amazing urban planner… The sky will be blue, the weather will be perfect, the streets will be wide, the community will be whole. Hopefully no cars since we will not have to hurry. If there is no time, there is no hurry. We will get to places not too late and not too early.

My brother is an architect. He works in London and likes to share some of his ‘pearls of wisdom’ with me. Once he shared a quote which I have never forgotten. “First create life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.” These are words by a renowned architect, Jan Gehl, from Denmark who has devoted much of his life to improving the quality of urban life by re-orienting city design towards the pedestrian and cyclist.

Unfortunately in so many places I feel like it is the other way around. Like good and enjoyable and sustainable life is the last priority. These megacities are places of so much concentrated wealth and power and under the shiny facade there is often another tale. Tale of abuse of this wealth and power which means that the good life is not for everyone.

Jan Gehl also said that “In a society becoming steadily more privatized with private homes, cars, computers, offices and shopping centers, the public component of our lives is disappearing. It is more and more important to make the cities inviting, so we can meet our fellow citizens face to face and experience directly through our senses. Public life in good quality public spaces is an important part of a democratic life and a full life” and “A good city is like a good party – people stay longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying themselves.”

Where do you enjoy yourself?

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Hong Kong… one of the places I could stay longer

Bangkoka, Honkonga, Kaira, Londona, Pekina, Losandželosa, Mehiko, Manila… vesels saraksts ar milzīgām un pārapdzīvotām metropolēm, kur esmu bijusi vai dzīvojusi.

Pasmaidu, kad dzirdu pazīstamus cilvēkus Latvijā sūdzamies, ka jābrauc uz “lielpilsētu” Rīgu. Tur esot tik daudz mašīnu, asfalta, cilvēku, trokšņu, un neesot, ko elpot. Es iedomājos, ko viņi teiktu šajās vietās, kur ir pavisam citi mērogi un cita nozīme vārdiem “sastrēgumi, satiksme, drūzma, burzma, asfalts, betons, troksnis un gaisa piesārņojums…”

Es gan mīlu, gan ienīstu šīs milzīgās pilsētas. Mīlu, jo te ir tik daudz ko redzēt un darīt, bet ienīstu to, ka jābrauc tik ‘tālu’ un tik ‘ilgi’. Mīlu, jo te ir tik daudz enerģijas un radošuma, bet ienīstu to, ka šīs pilsētas nekad ‘neguļ’. Mīlu, jo cilvēki var atrast labāku darbu, bet ienīstu to, ka daudziem jābrauc prom no sev mīļām vietām un mīļiem cilvēkiem, kurus negribas atstāt. Mīlu, jo te ir tik daudz cilvēku, ko mīlēt, bet ienīstu to, ka tik daudz netaisnības un sociālas nevienlīdzības.

Esmu gan pilsētas, gan lauku meitene. Man patīk un man vajag abas šīs vides. Nav jau brīnums, jo arī cilvēces stāsts iesākās Ēdenes dārzā, bet turpinās jaunā Pilsētā. Izklausās, ka tā būs apbrīnojama vieta. Varbūt tik jauka, tīra, zaļa, ērta kā Singapūra, bet simtreiz labāka. Man nav ne mazāko šaubu, ka Dievs ir vislabākais pilsētplānotājs… Debesis būs zilas, klimats būs perfekts, ielas būs platas, cilvēki vislabākajās attiecībās ar sevi, citem un apkārtējo vidi. Klusi ceru, ka nebūs mašīnu, jo nebūs taču nekur jāsteidzas. Ja nav laika mūsu izpratnē, tad nav arī steigas. Visur nokļūsim ne par ātru, ne par vēlu.

Viens no maniem brāļiem ir arhitekts. Strādā Londonā, un viņam ir daudz visādas ‘gudrības pērles’. Reiz viņš man atsūtīja kādu citātu, ko vēl joprojām atceros. “Vispirms radi dzīvi, tad radi vietu, un tad ēkas – no otra gala nevar sākt.” Šos vārdus teicis pasaules atzinību guvis arhitekts Jans Gēls no Dānijas, kurš savu darbu ir veltījis pilsētas dzīves kvalitātes uzlabošanai, rodot jaunus pilsētdizainus, kas dod priekšroku gājējiem un riteņbraucējiem.

Diemžēl daudzās vietās ir sajūta, ka tiešām sākts no otra gala. Un labā un ilgtspējīgā dzīve ir atstāta pēdējā vietā. Šajās metropolēs ir tik daudz bagātības un spēka koncentrācijas, bet zem spoguļstiklu fasādes slēpjas vēl kāds stāsts. Stāsts par šīs bagātības un spēka ļaunprātīgu izmantošanu, kas labo dzīvi piedāvā ne visiem.

Jans Gēls apgalvo, ka “sabiedrībā, kura kļūst arvien privātāka, jo ir privātās mājas, auto, datori, ofisi un iepirkšanās centri, sāk pazust mūsu dzīves publiskā daļa. Arvien svarīgāk ir padarīt mūsu pilsētas viesmīlīgas, lai mēs varētu satikties ar pārējiem iedzīvotājiem un piedzīvot šo saskarsmi vistiešākajā veidā. Publiskā dzīve labas kvalitātes publiskās vietās ir nepieciešama demokrātiskai un pilnvērtīgai dzīvei.” Un vēl viņš salīdzina “labu pilsētu ar labu tusiņu, kur cilvēki paliek ilgāk kā vajadzīgs, jo viņiem tur patīk.”

Kur tu gribētu palikt ilgāk?