Blog #64: Sowing the (right) Seeds
|March 31, 2022
|As a freshly minted beekeeper, I was committed to have my garden be a beautiful little habitat for the newly arrived ladies. Or so I thought. Last year, when I got my first bee hives, a beekeeper from the neighborhood dropped by and scolded me for what I had thought was a perfectly respectable lawn. Turns out, weekly lawn mowing and keeping one’s grass short is really not leaving much fun to be had for insects of any kind. Indeed, ever since we moved there, I had not seen many butterflies or even wild bees. So I began to read up about lawns - English lawns, flowering lawns, wildflower lawns - and I discovered that those of us with a garden have a lot to contribute to nature; only where gardens are occupied by a diversity of plants, and only where one is sparse with fertilizers and pesticides, can insects find a place to live. Many of you will know that insects are disappearing from our environment at an alarming rate, driven by the dramatic losses in diverse habitats that is occurring all around the world, including in our gardens. As it were, this Sunday, April 3rd, across Austria, many towns and counties celebrate Blühwiesensonntag (Flowering Lawn Sunday) - a day when you might even be able to pick up seeds for free for your wildflower garden. So, today’s Blog in our LivingLight Blog series explores what we can do ourselves about bringing wild flowers back. And it’s not just for those of you who have a garden, but also for those who know someone who does.
|But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First we need to ask why anyone would want to even consider a flowering lawn or a wildflower lawn - instead of that beautiful, symmetrically looking, pleasing-for-the-busy-eye patch of straightforward green? I am myself in that latter camp, or so I was, loving the idea of this English-looking garden behind the house. Well, aside from the aesthetics - and these are, as we know, in the eye of the beholder - there are three great practical reasons to go on the wild side with your garden. Firstly: It’s less work. You only mow your wildflower lawn twice a year. Secondly: it’s less resource intensive. You don’t need to water your lawn, no small argument when thinking about the dry summers here in Vienna and its surroundings. In fact, your wildflower lawn, much in contrast to your English lawn, likes it dry. And thirdly: You don’t need to buy all that pesticide or fertilizer. At least if you commit to not only having a flowering lawn but also an ecologically maintained flowering lawn.
Picture: The Natur im Garten plaque in Austria signals that there is someone here who allows wildflowers to bloom - and who uses neither pesticides nor fertilizers. Maybe something to think about doing yourself - or helping your friends do?
|Ecologically maintained sounds complicated. Complicated is the last thing I would want. The good news is: Help can easily be had. Just over 20 years ago, someone in Niederösterreich started a movement called Natur-im-Garten that evolved into an agency and then a network, promoting ecological management of wildflower gardens (Naturgarten in German). By now, they have offices in all of the Austrian states with the exception of Vienna, and they have partners in a number of German states as well as in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Natur-im-Garten teams are available to anyone interested to learn about ways to have an ecologically maintained wildflower garden, offering classes and advice. And, if you commit to their no-pesticide-no-fertilizer idea, they will give you a beautiful plaque that you can fix outside of your garden. In fact, when walking through villages in Austria, you will see the plaque in many places; at least in this part of the world, the Natur-im-Garten ideas seem to be taken up. The best part: You can simply call them, tell them about your wildflower plans, and they will advise you. In gardening for dummy-terms: Buy the (right) seeds, make sure your garden is in a good place for the seeds to take hold, check the soil, the time of the year, and so on, and then just put them there. And for just a little bit more inspiration: check out this little article from the Guardian's Gardening Advice column.
|When talking to Natur-im-Garten myself I learned a lot of interesting things that I had had no idea about. For example, I had not realized how many of the flower seeds that one buys in the large supermarkets are not indigenous but rather imported. That makes it not only difficult for a number of plants to grow - it can be tough to adjust to our climate - but they may also not be ideal for our bees and other insects. Natur-im-Garten wants us to consider using local seeds that are adjusted to the location of our gardens. You can’t get those in the big retail stores - but the Natur-im-Garten folks can point you to the right place. At this week’s Bluehwiesensonntag (Flowering Lawn Sunday) you might be able to pick some up directly. With some patience - it seems that Wildflower Lawns may take a year or two to come to full fruition - you can then welcome butterflies, birds, bees, and wildlife of all kinds to your garden again.
|Worried about weeds? Well, maybe it’s not that much to worry about. The dandelions, crabgrass, chickweeds, do they really have to go? This week, March 28, was National Weed Appreciation Day, and so I figure if someone has the time to declare an entire day for us to appreciate weed - maybe it’s time for us to relax about that part of our garden. Certainly my bees love their dandelions.
|In conclusion: This is the right time to consider action - in terms of wildflowers, renouncing pesticides, and letting your weeds bloom. Whether you want to turn your own lawn into a wildflower lawn or the lawn in your friend’s garden. Surely, she’d love your help (and advice) (just kidding). I am no great gardener myself, but it seems in this part of the world the time to put out flower seeds runs from March to May. So your time is now!
Blog #63: Walking on Water
|March 24, 2022
|It’s a busy week for those of us looking for ways to care for God’s creation. On Friday, March 25th, we might want to follow FridaysforFuture call and join Climate Strike events wherever we are. Here in Vienna, there will be a large demonstration, fueled (no pun intended) by the current debates about dependencies from oil and gas, and the Austrian government’s rather (over)generous plans to subsidize those that put gas in their cars’ tanks. It starts at 1:30pm at Stubentor, and in walking on to Praterstern there will be speeches and activities throughout 7:30 pm or so. I will be out of town and so can’t go myself - can you?
|This week also featured World Water Day, on Tuesday, March 22nd, a moment in time that tends to mobilize people and organizations around the world to share important and interesting insights around water. This year, the topic featured is Groundwater - water found underground in what is called “aquifers” - geological formations of rocks, sands and gravels that can hold water. Here in Austria, groundwater areas cover nearly one third of the national territory: Every third step we take we quite literally walk on water. Very specific to Austria is also that nearly 100% of all water consumption here - whether for industry, households, or agriculture - draws on groundwater. The most invisible of resources, as the UN calls it.
|Should we be concerned about water when living here in Austria? Well, first and foremost we are all global citizens, and so we would want to care about water availability around the world. But it actually interesting to check out our host country: Here in Austria, courtesy of some 5,500 utilities and 81,000 kilometers of pipes, we directly consume about 130 liters of water per person and day - only four of which we use to drink and cook; the rest is used for our household chores and in gardens. We can afford it: Austria is water rich (for now) and even if we were to want to use less water, this would not necessarily help anyone who lives in a water scarce area. But beyond the water we consume directly, there is also the water that was used by others when producing what we eat, drink, cloth us with, or otherwise use. If we account for indirect water usage, our daily per capita consumption of water here in Austria jumps to 4,700 liter - the equivalent of filling 30 bathtubs every day (with 150 liters) with water. About 75% of this consumption is driven by the food we eat (and drink), and 22% by the textiles and shoes we wear. Only a very small share is what we consume directly.
|But why worry about the water we consume indirectly? After all, we are in water-rich Austria, aren’t we? Well, much of what we consume is imported. When we eat tomatoes hailing from Spain or Portugal, chances are that we directly contribute to the overuse - often of groundwater - in water scarce areas. The same goes for asparagus coming from Peru, and for many other vegetables, milk products and meats that are produced by overusing groundwater. What to do? The usual advice applies: Buy local and seasonal, re-use textiles where you can - or buy them second hand (hint: the Christ Church Shop offers good selections), and be careful when buying things that come from water scarce areas, And if you are looking to find out where these are: The World Resource Institute’s Aqueduct Tool allows you to find answers directly yourself.
|There is more to the Austrian Water Story. This last week I had the chance to participate in a workshop where I found out about a unique study, done by the Austrian Government last Autumn: Water Treasures in Austria - Wasserschatz Österreich - analyzes current and future states of Groundwater in our host country. The study is sofar available only in German, but you can check the graphs in the report and you will still find it interesting. Essentially: If all goes right - not-too dramatic impact from climate change and from consumption pattern shifts, and good gains in water efficiency in industrial and agricultural water use - there will be enough Groundwater for everyone here in Austria even in 2050. However, in addition to the optimistic scenario, there is also a pessimistic scenario. Partly, we can influence the latter by what we demand from industry and agriculture, and also from ourselves, in how we use and consume water. Worthwhile to think about - and perhaps to do something about
|If by now I have succeeded to interest you in all matters around water, here is a fun tip to conclude: Water: A Biography is the title of an amazing new book that just came out, taking us through 10,000 years of history of how the distribution of water has shaped human civilization. It comes on kindle, as a printed book and is also available in audible. A great teaser and five-minute-read is an interview online available with the author, Giulio Boccaletti, a former McKinsey Partner and Chief Strategy Officer with The Nature Conservancy. Boccaletti takes you on a fascinating tour to what we know about how water has influenced how we live, take decisions, and engage with each other. Most of the political and legal institutions that our lives depend on today - including ideas of democracy and republic - have all arisen in the course of humanity trying to figure out how to manage and take care of water. Isn’t it amazing, that planet of ours! On which we literally walk on water?!
Blog #62: Big Bold Steps to End Plastic Pollution
|March 17, 2022
|Quietly and nearly unnoticed something really big happened two weeks ago: On March 2nd in Nairobi, the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) adopted a resolution to open negotiations for a Global Plastics Treaty. And if this sounds very legalistic - it’s meant to do so: What the 175 countries agreed to is to begin negotiating what eventually will be a legally binding treaty about reducing if not eliminating plastic waste. Before signing a treaty like this, the countries involved have to negotiate, and before negotiating they must have a moment to decide to begin negotiations - and that’s exactly what happened two weeks ago. And it gets better. The big and bold agreement that countries will negotiate throughout the coming two years will cover the whole life cycle of plastic pollution - from creation, to use and on to recycling or disposal.
|Normally, we don't discuss global agreements or global politics in the LivingLight blog - unless they directly touch our lives here at Christ Church Vienna or in the city we live in. So why bring up this particular agreement now? Well, even though I find it yet hard to imagine how precisely the Global Plastics Treaty will touch our lives, it is very clear that it will lead to big and substantive shifts for everyone. Firstly, avoiding or eliminating plastics from our lives will be about everything we consume: Ranging from apples to mobile phones, pretty much all we use - or eat - involves some kind of a plastic container or plastic wrapping. Secondly, plastic’s pathways into our lives go much further than just our everyday consumer decisions. Try finding a car or a train or a bicycle that does not use ample amounts of plastic for interiors and exteriors; try finding medical equipment not featuring plastics; or check out industrial production processes. Plastics are literally everywhere. The agreement that the delegates in Nairobi committed to negotiate is to be signed two years from now - in 2024 - and it will then be implemented, step by step. Thinking about alternatives will start earlier, and we can all try to be supportive.
|When paying attention, we can already see how things are shifting, albeit in small small steps. Laws to eliminate single-use plastics have become reality in a number of countries. As of last year, single-use plastics for which non-plastic alternatives exist are formally banned across the EU. If you see someone giving out plastic straws or plastic cutlery, you know they are not doing what’s right. And even though there are still plenty of exceptions - such as for plastic cups that are sofar deemed to have no alternatives - things are on the move. Last week when on the InterCity between Vienna and Munich I was pleased to find that the train’s restaurant is giving me a wooden forks and knives set rather than the customary plastic one. At the time, I did not even know that they were legally obliged to do so.
|What makes me so happy about the upcoming Global Plastics Treaty is that finally, finally things seem to be moving away from holding the consumer accountable. So much discussion has focused over the last years on individual choices we are to make, so much energy is spent by everyone by themselves feeling they had to look for better pathways. So many of us are constantly scouting out products that come with a low plastic footprint, whether these are soaps in paper wrapping or veggies in recyclable bags. We look for shops that allow us to bring our own containers. And we look for alternative solutions to become part of our lives. Once the Global Plastics Treaty is in place, we can finally hand back these responsibilities to where they belong: The politicians we have entrusted with organizing the collective parts of how we want to live, and the organizations that serve us in our daily lives.
|The Global Plastics Treaty is still a few years away. In the meantime our planet is aching under the weight of the plastics we leave behind. Right now, we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year - nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population. In the oceans, seabirds and fish literally choke on plastic waste. And as plastic waste transforms into micro-plastics it ends up in our own bodies: On average humans are estimated to ingest about 5 grams of micro-plastics every week - the equivalent of a credit card. At current rates, plastic production is expected to grow by 40% over the coming decade. So, let’s not kid ourselves: Many battles will need to be fought for this to be a good treaty. By 2050, plastics will be where some 20% of global oil production go towards. That’s not a small share, and the oil industry will want to put up a fight, arguing that recycling is a better solution than outright bans. Some countries are siding with the industry. On the other hand, politicians from across the EU and many of the countries in the Global South argue that avoidance is cheaper and faster than recycling or clean-up. The negotiations, says the UN Environmental Program’s chief Inger Anderson, will be one of the most complex ones ever seen. And the negotiators will need our prayers. So let’s get on with it!
Blog #61: Women Guardians of the Planet
|March 10, 2022
|This week we celebrated International Women’s Day, and as much as my heart is with the men and women and children in Ukraine, I would nevertheless want to dedicate today’s LivingLight Blog to taking a quick look at the who is who amongst women working to support our environment. Why? You may not have noticed - but women do tend to play a somewhat outsized role in mobilizing for the environmental care our planet’s needs…And why is that? Well, I can only speculate. For many years, and still today, caring for environmental topics was not something that one could make a career with, earn a lot of money through, or otherwise gain substantive respect from. And it always seems to me that women tend to either be attracted by “looser causes” - things that come without prestige or billions of income - or that perhaps these are the causes that the gentlemen leave for us women to clean up, who knows. Whatever the reason: Women have made and are making substantial contributions to the changes we need if we want to keep our earth going - and in celebrating International Women’s Day, here are a few interesting factoids.
|We can start our little journey right here, in our own Diocese where Elizabeth Bussman has been the Diocesen Environment Officer for coming up to seven years. Also, over on the mother ship, Jo Chamberlain is National Environment Officer for the Church of England, working closely with the Open and Sustainable Churches Officer, Catherine Ross, who offers advice and support for church buildings to improve their environmental footprint. And beyond those doing the earthly work, in our churches we also have women saints and faith leaders to look to for inspiration: There is Kateri Tekakawita, the first native american saint in the Catholic church; and there is St. Gobnait, one of the patron saints of bees. I personally also draw inspiration from St. Hildegard, an abbess and mystic who saw harmony in God’s creation and whose work in mobilizing nature’s powers for healing is much sought after still today.
|On the international scene, women have helped launch key environmental topics and are visibly engaged in leadership roles. Let’s start with Gro Harlem Bundtland who - in addition to her many achievements - also led the UN’s Commission on the Environment that in 1987 defined sustainability as Meeting the Needs of the Present without Compromising the Ability of Future Generations to meet their own Needs. Other women leaders include Patricia Espinosa, the current head of the UN’s Climate Change agency, Christiana Figueres who preceded her in this role and negotiated the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, and Inger Andersen who heads UNEP and just negotiated the groundwork for what will be a legally binding international agreement on plastic pollution by 2024. There are many others, perhaps not as visible but nonetheless influential, such as Paula Caballero, a Colombian Diplomat, who came up with the idea to create Sustainable Development Goals that all countries would commit to; or there is Sunitra Narain, an advocate and researcher - who through the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found new ways for rainwater use in water scarce places. I had the fortune to have met both of them personally, but there are many others, of course, and if you are interested in lists of women fighting climate change or badass women fighting climate change, google will help you find more.
|Then there are the women activists. Today, everyone knows Greta Thunberg, of course. When I grew up, the environmental activist I came to see as the epitome of green activism was Petra Kelly, co-founder of the German Greens. Later, when moving abroad, I learned about women activists such as Erin Brockovich, legal aid and force behind one of the first and very large lawsuits in the US against environmental pollution on behalf of the victims, many will know her through a Julia Roberts film. We have much to look up to also in Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and Nobel Prize recipient. In the meantime, Greenpeace International is led by two women, Jennifer Morgan and Bunny McDiarmid. And the list goes on: It is as inspiring as it is long. You can find more green women activists amongst the guardians of the planet or on other lists online.
|Much environmental thought has also been brought forward by women scientists. Most formidable among them is of course Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom who researched and found solutions for what we economists call the problem of the commons, studying the interaction between people and ecosystems. There are many others following her footsteps, including Leena Srivastava, a climate change scientist and longtime TERI Executive Director, now here at IAASA in Vienna. And since our thoughts are with Ukraine, let’s also celebrate the many women scientists over there who have been working - and are working - on environmental protection. This includes Svitlana Krakovska, a climate scientist and member of the IPCC. Overall, though barriers for women scientists seem to still be high, in climate science as in many other places, but things are set to be improving..
|Here in Austria, of course, environmental policies are being made by women, and today’s lady in charge is Leonore Gewessler, the Minister for Environment and Climate Change. Another formidable woman, Katharina Rogenhofer runs the activism around the Klimavolksbegehren (climate referendum) and brought Fridays for Future to Austria. Are green politics female, one might want to ask? Perhaps. Indeed, a recent Austrian study of voting behaviors in the European Parliament was conclusive: Women Parliamentarians vote more often in favor of environmental legislation than men - and this result holds even when taking into account the somewhat higher proportion of women parliamentarians in the parties with a green mandates.
|International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. I wish we would not need it any more, a (woman) friend of mine sighed quietly on the phone this morning. Well, I take any opportunity to celebrate. There is nothing quite as helpful as a good celebratory thought in these days of darkness