Climate crisis: Starting the new year with awareness

Activist Greta Thunberg speaks during the global demonstration "Global strike for future" in central Stockholm, Sweden, March 15, 2019. (photo credit: HENRIK MONTGOMERY / TT NEWS AGENCY VIA REUTERS)
Activist Greta Thunberg speaks during the global demonstration "Global strike for future" in central Stockholm, Sweden, March 15, 2019.
(photo credit: HENRIK MONTGOMERY / TT NEWS AGENCY VIA REUTERS)
Entering the second decade of the second millennium, I see a growing interest on the climate crisis in the news. It really took me by surprise, because although it has been escalating for decades, it hardly caught the attention of the news – especially in Israel, and as a result, of the public.
I have been involved in passive solar architecture since I was an architecture student in the 1980s. However, my environmental concern grew more after my three daughters were born in the early 2000s. I not only felt responsible for their upbringing, but, became worried about their future as well. I could not help but compare the world of my childhood to the world they will inherit.
I grew up in a middle class home in Athens, Greece, in the 1970s. My parents worked hard to re-build a prosperous household after the Holocaust, and give a good education to my sister and me, and a comfortable lifestyle. We spent quality time on picnics in nature and summer vacations by the Aegean Sea. We lived comfortably, but not extravagantly. For example, we managed the summer heat with ceiling vents and open windows. We shopped locally and walked – or biked - a great deal.
In the 1970s, with less than half the people on Earth than today, and only one third of global population living in cities, with European car ownership at less than 20%, life had a certain degree of simplicity. Yet, already back in the 1970s, global warming and plastic waste impact on marine life were already alarming scientists. Also, there was a great deal of misinformation.
For example, it was the norm for my father to smoke in the car while my sister and I were on board. It was also the norm to enjoy a meat-based diet – with lots of fat – almost daily, and to consume dairy products, despite the fact that I developed allergies from them. It was also possible to own two cars, and to commute from a residential suburb by car, through non-congested highways to the city center to work.
Today, as my daughters reach their teens, the world they grow up in and will inherit is very different. The global population is reaching eight billion. More than 50% are living in cities. There are nearly two billion cars on the roads. High-income countries consume 10 times more per person than low-income countries. Planetary boundaries are pushed beyond their limits, as resources are consumed at a rate 50% faster than they can be regenerated by nature. Increase of greenhouse gas emissions, caused by human activity, further increase the temperature of the earth and oceans triggering extreme weather patterns, and rising sea levels, endangering entire ecosystems.
With information in abundance, we have more choices and more freedom, but burdened with responsibility to act. For example, we know that cigarette smoking – and passive smoking – are associated with increased risk for cancer. So, as a society we banned smoking in public places and in the presence of children.
As numerous studies are published and available on the Internet about the health effects of meat-based diet, and the severe effect of livestock farming on the environment, we choose individually to change our diet. We also know that suburban commuting is becoming longer as traffic congestion increases, and thus we choose public transportation and/or relocation. In other words, we are adapting our choices to maintain our quality of life.
In 1993, one year after the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, I attended the annual American Institute of Architects conference in Chicago, where the message of Rio was transmitted loud and clear: The world must come together to cooperate on development and sustainability to ensure a future for younger generations.
From an architectural point of view, it requires re-evaluating the way we design and orient our homes toward the Sun and wind, maintaining a small yet comfortable footprint, choosing the right materials we build our homes, insulating our walls, and using renewable technologies for heating and cooling, not only the way we build, but also the way we run our economy.
WE NEED to re-evaluate the production, use and dispose of chemicals, the production and use of energy, the choice to prioritize renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels, to develop new systems for public transportation to increase mobility, reduce car emissions, traffic congestion, air pollution and health problems.
It is easy to speak about sustainability and about what our city or our government needs to do. Yet, most changes are required by each one of us. It took me a while to internalize this point, as it is the most difficult to make. To respond to climate change, is like responding to something abstract and distant which we have not yet experienced and have no idea what its impact may be.
I can only compare it to the dilemma of a Jewish family back in Greece in April 1941, just before the Nazi occupation. Would that family act, go into hiding or flee, upon hearing on the radio that the Germans are about to invade Greece? Some did. They fled the country or went into hiding, and were saved. But most did not.
Understanding the importance of acting before it is too late, we decided to take responsibility and act. We are a family of five. We live in a fairly small apartment in the Greek Colony of Jerusalem on the third floor of a six-flat building. Our home footprint is about half the national average.
We walk up and down the stairs daily, keeping us fit. Our waste production is roughly 50% lower than average as we compost all our organic waste in our backyard. We solar-heat our water, and our apartment has a southern exposure, keeping our bedrooms warm even in the winter. Before moving in, we renovated our apartment. We insulated it so well that thanks to passive ventilation, we don’t use air-conditioning in the summer. We also added thermal mass on the walls which stores enough heat so that in the winter of 2013, in a snow storm with a blackout, our apartment kept warm for three days without any heating at all!
As expected, our electrical bill is far less than our neighbors’ in the same building, by about 40-60%. We have one (hybrid) car, and use public transportation – thanks to half a dozen bus lines and a bus stop next to our building. My wife commutes less than 15 minutes daily. Our daughters walk to school or take the bus. I walk six minutes to work, or work from home.
When I go to the city center for meetings, I enjoy a 20-minute walk from our apartment, a perfect workout if not raining. Some changes were also required due to health reasons. For example, meat consumption in our family dropped from twice or three times a week, to nearly once per month (less by 91%). I also fly less, from about once per month to about twice per year (less by 83%), using instead more voice over IP services.
With no television – and less exposure to commercials brainwashing at home, we shop less than average, and choose to shop locally and support our local stores, over international online shopping.
The climate crisis is a big challenge with even bigger opportunities at every level. This is why I am excited with the exposure it gets on the news lately. Because, I hope that with the new year, Israel will take leadership and Israeli innovation will respond to the challenge, and be on the forefront to re-invent nearly everything the next generation will need for a sustainable lifestyle, both as individuals, but also as resilient communities in adaptable cities in healthy environments, with equal opportunities in circular economies, based on renewable energy and waste recycling, with respect for the well-being of all humans, and all life-supporting species on the planet.
Wouldn’t that be a great way to start the new year?

The writer is an architect and environmental consultant, co-editor of Book #1: 50 Voices for Sustainability and founding chairman of the environmental NGO ECOWEEK (ecoweek.org).