My Globalised Life
Updated: Jan 29, 2020
By guest author Dr Samantha Gordine.
I am a marine biologist. I love marine life; it makes me happy and feel alive. It means the world to me, and through it I find a purpose in life and an identity. Yet, I am very unhappy these days. Many pathways that have led me onto the career path of becoming a marine biologist have bound me to a lifestyle that I find increasingly unsustainable.
My friends are scattered throughout the world, across many ocean basins. Most of the time, the only means I have to personally reconnect with them are by taking mid to long haul flights. The jobs – particularly those in my academic field of expertise – almost force me to be in places which are often very beautiful and pristine, yet far away from the people I hold the dearest. To be closer to my loved ones I have not taken many career-accelerating opportunities which would have taken me to exotic and far-away places. The sacrifice of being close to and for my loved ones seems worth rejecting to go to these top places; and working in what contextually can be described as ‘second best’ places. This compromise means that my family is within a two hour flight or four hour train ride proximity; and I am and have been separated from them for years and years.
Moving away from the sea, back to central Europe at least helped me with my guilt for having taken so many short-haul flights to see friends and family regularly. This way, I can travel more ‘eco-friendly’ by taking the train which is supposedly fuelled by renewable energy. However, being away from the sea, therefore not directly working in marine biology anymore and still being separated from my family somewhat made me feel worse. So to improve my well-being, I eventually moved in with one loved one and thereby cut out on one regular commute. Yet this meant that I had to move even further away from the sea to a landlocked country. So now I find myself seeking a new non-marine job, when I actually focused most of my education and efforts on finding a marine related job. It feels as though whichever way I move, I lose.
My life right now simply feels like a constant, difficult balancing act. On the one side, there is the (marine) environment that I care so much about, without which I feel I just would not be me. On the other side stands my socio-economic life which is important to me because of the people in it and the material pleasures that bring me happiness (to which I count quite simple things such as good food, plants on my balcony, books, art, etc. ). People say that globalisation is inevitable and positive. Certainly it has enriched my life through various aspects such as an education abroad, a global network of friends and contacts, and the two edible things I love the most: tea and mango.
It appears though that globalisation is Eve’s apple in the Garden of Eden. Once you have tasted the forbidden fruit, it is seemingly impossible to go back. Personally, I would not have wanted to have missed out on meeting my friends from abroad (whilst being abroad). Likewise and as ridiculous as it sounds, I have often wondered whether climate change and a loss of the globalised economy would deny me access to tea or mango. Every time I do eat fish (which is seldom and then mostly limited to farmed freshwater fish), I contemplate whether this could be the last one of its kind. I often look at bananas – the most consumed fruit on earth – and wonder what will happen in twenty years when the banana plant may have gone extinct. And the list continues: will there be honey, coffee (for those who prefer it over tea), pine nuts, avocados….Will my children see any pristine nature? Coral reefs which inspired me to become a marine biologist will probably be dead –to this though I have grown accustomed. But will my children be able to collect chestnuts given the disease waves these trees are struggling with?
Will my children find sea shells or plastic bottles on the shorelines? Will they be able to indulge in the childish joys of building a snowman?
These thoughts shake me and I want to stop it; but I just seem to be part of the puzzle that makes it worse for the environment and/or for me. After my last job as part of which I accumulated 24 flights in one year, I could not take the built-up environmental guilt anymore. Why do corporations make their employees travel so much? In the day and age of constant technological revolutions and growing environmentally friendly travel options, is there really no better solution than putting people on a plane? Buying yourself free with a carbon offset hypothetical acre of saved or replanted forest cannot be the solution. I personally lost all my appetite for travel, and did not want to see places anymore. For my own health and that of my loved ones it would be better to spend a lot of time together. However, I decided that at the moment a trip to Canada, South Africa, Japan or even the UK is a flight too many. So now I do not see many of my friends, many of whom I have not seen in years. What is the solution to my problem? Globalisation gave me these lovely people, but now I feel bad for wanting to go see them.
They say meat and dairy production are one of the key environmental problems that significantly add to the global carbon footprint. As a marine biologist I am highly sensitised to overfishing too. In my attempt to live more sustainably, I began by reducing my fish consumption to farmed salmon and trout only. Through eating farmed fish only, I at least did not directly contribute to the depletion of wild fish stocks. However, I never fully felt comfortable with eating farmed fish partially because it felt like cheating; and partially because I was painfully aware of the bioaccumulation of pesticides and heavy metals particularly in mega-fauna farmed fish. So I tried to abstain from eating fish for several months. As I already ate little meat and comparatively few dairy products, my fruit and vegetable consumption exploded at one point: I ate at least one mango a week. Avocados became a common substitute for animal protein. Tofu provided more protein.
However, my brain was never happy with the high consumption of these foods either. I tried not to think of the water consumption that went into growing these things. Overall, I could not satisfy myself by ignoring these facts though, and I actually started to consume the food other people did not buy or left to rot over the weekend in a forgotten office fridge. Seeing the waste in an office setting made me so angry and gave me a new focal angle. Every Friday I packed a bag with remainders to give to the homeless while my colleagues went to the next restaurant to east only three-quarters of their newly ordered dish. Although in this period of my life the food I was eating was mostly non-sustainably sourced, at least it felt good to minimise waste.
When I moved again for another job –the one that turned me into a travelling working nomad – I just generally lost my appetite. While I love cooking, I hate grocery shopping. In no other period of my life, I hated grocery shopping as much as in this one. It became an ordeal. They say France has great quality groceries and a fantastic relationship to food. However, trying to reduce eating dairy in France – the country of cheese – is like choosing not to eat at all. It also never felt harder obtaining vegetarian options at restaurants or take-away. The vegetarian option was usually the one with chicken or tuna. The vegan restaurant close to my office because the only place where I actually felt good to eat, comforting like a home.
The most horrifying experience in this period was a business trip to Korea during which my favourite animal – the octopus – ended up on my plate. Hidden in a pancake (pictured above) so that I did not know what I was actually eating, my tongue stumbled on a tentacle and could not forget the trauma for hours to come. This experience happened despite having told my hosts that I was vegetarian, and as a result having been presented with several fish dishes in previous days. As so often in my life I had to realise that in many people’s eyes, food from the sea is simply not deemed meat. So for these people it seems acceptable to squeeze helpless octopodes into tiny restaurant aquaria to offer them to customers to devour alive. After stumbling out of the restaurant and looking horrified into the eyes of yet another soon-to-be-eaten octopus at its door, I simply did not want to eat anything in Korea anymore.
Eventually nothing tasted. I would open the fridge and close it again; eating primarily to nurture myself but not for enjoyment. Shopping at the organic supermarket at least made me feel safe in buying sustainable foods. Often I wondered if the prices I paid there were really what food actually ought to cost. It does make you wonder though if you pay nine euro for almond butter in this French organic store, and four euro for an equivalent product across the border in Germany. What does food actually cost? How much do we over and underpay through environmental hipster hype or globalised mass production?
After a bout of serious illness, I got scared for my own well-being. It was evident that I had to increase my food intake to recoup the resources I had lost. Interestingly I would develop cravings specifically for foods I previously reduced due to ethical or environmental reasons. This made me return to eating salmon, avocados, meat, and more dairy – as much organically sourced as I could afford. “Afford” is an important word here, because it made me realise that eating sustainably sourced food is a financial privilege that many of us do not have; and an option that many of those who have the financial privilege do not choose. Often I confronted different people and asked them why they would not buy organic or sustainably sourced food. Many times I heard that “organic” labelling is just a money making scam, and anyways, why should you pay more for food if you can have it cheaper? Many others stuck to version of “why do I need to start making sacrifices?” or “My own actions do not make a difference as this is a much bigger global matter”.
For the reason that I do need to eat, I have reduced the amounts of foods on my personal black list and returned to eating whilst paying close attention to their source of origin. Oftentimes my mind is not happy about eating some of these things again and I do not necessarily feel good about it either. It is as though my psyche is in a complex pact with the environment to save it although not quite sure about how best to do this and my body simply demands resources. As a biologist “survival of the fittest” comes to mind. When it comes to life or death, then you have to beat whatever is threatening your survival. So for now it seems that I have to silence my ethical-conscious psyche.
Why has eating become an ethical environmental war? Because some have and still consume way too much; not even thinking about it and leaving the (over-)thinking to others. The latter are left to scramble by committing much exaggerated personal sacrifices to re-establish the balance that the former have disturbed. It is the debt that we have accrued through our human greed. Can this go on? No; and the only way to solve this paradox is by consuming less. Less demand means less production and therefore less exploitation. And to be clear: it is exploitation we are talking about. The exploitation of resources that belong to someone else; the exploitation of resources that actually do not belong to anyone in particular. This is the natural capital that belongs to every creature on this earth. We are guests here, like any others species. Yet we all act (me included) like the proprietor. It is not just the tragedy of the commons; it is the doomsday of the commons. And I am angry that despite many people’s good will it is still so burdensome to do the right thing.
In a debate not too long ago my opponent said that if there was one thing that could make a problem a tiny bit better, then one ought to do it, irrespective of whether the impact is only incremental. Governments exist to facilitate, to enable and to legislate exactly this: to make life of their populous better – even if it is incrementally. In the time of climate strikes during which experts, children and pensioners – all members of the public - not only advocate but point out the things that would improve their quality of life not only now but for the future, governments and the economy hide behind statements referring to complexity and large impact. In this regard, our governments not only fail us, but they betray the reason for their very existence.
Yes: climate action, sustainability and environmentally conscious behaviour are complex for us who are trying to act and improve without the powerful support of governments and clear leadership as to what we as individuals need to do and what governments are taking care of. Division of labour is the simple principle that helps us achieve large, complex tasks. The entire government structure is constructed around this principle. Yet somehow governments do not manage to translate this fundamental approach when it comes to societal challenges? It makes you wonder, and I do not know what to believe anymore. Except for what has become clearly evident: governments fail to admit that this task cannot be mastered without concerted top-down and bottom-up efforts that will result in a fundamental change in how we currently live; that governments are reliant on grassroot action to make it work; and that they do not have a plan to direct the populous’ actions, maybe because they do not even have a plan to direct their own actions.
Sometimes I think about abandoning it all. Stop trying to figure it out on my own; just become reactive and adaptive. Live off the grid in a location where temperatures in summer will still be bearable in twenty to fifty years. A place that is not overpopulated and high enough to escape sea level rise. Somewhere I can grow my own food and do not have to worry about the fairness, appropriateness and sustainability of food I would otherwise have to buy. Somewhere I can still be reached by public transport so that I will not have to rely on fuel powered transportation. Being self-sufficient so that I do not have to buy doubly plastic wrapped goods even when they come from the organic stores. Not have a computer or smart phone, the use of which deteriorates my eyes and the production of which destroys entire landscapes.
However, this mesocosm will definitely come at a price of human ex- and interchange. Not just the benefit of being in company of other people and conversing with them; but knowledge exchange in general. The exchange of knowledge and innovation is what determines the nature of our species. We are curious, and we seek to learn and exchange knowledge. So locking ourselves away, off-grid, just creates a new paradox. Either we can become insular and confine ourselves to what nature gives us (under a clime scenario of 3-4°C warming). Or we place our hope on knowledge exchange and innovation. However, the latter would require – as I currently see it – to stay at least partially “on the grid” or globalised life-line.
Reflecting on all this, I increasingly start to see that we need to pack away our personal egos and redefine our value system. This is simple on paper, but hard in real life. As a scientist with access to a multitude of knowledge resources it may be easier – compared to non-scientist - to decide on what is environmentally worthwhile to do. I often see my loved-ones confused as to whether reducing plastic, meat intake or fuel consumption is what they ought to put their focus on. Quite honestly, most days I am equally confused. Maybe this is because I understand the consequences better and see the interlacement of all these topics, unlike my family who often address these issues one at a time. Overall though one thing has become clear: I carry a heavy burden with me that appears to be growing each day. So are many others around me. Others float around seemingly weightless; their consciousness satisfied by a quick donation or a selfish environmental fashion act.
While one somehow ought to be graceful for any sort of contribution, many escape their responsibilities altogether. The anger towards these people grows. Justice – if this word exists in the context of the environment at all – seems far away. The only method of combat appears to be repeated reminders and vocalisation. Maybe we need to be angry at each other, confront people directly with our anger. Hold people to their individual social responsibility; impeach them if they do not. Do not let things slip.
I wish I could say there was nothing to be confused about; that there is one answer that could solve the problem, direct our actions and overcome. I do not. Yet, being confused also makes us reflect and seek answers. If we keep looking, then maybe we will find them. At least this is what I will continue to do in the quest for a sustainable lifestyle in pursuit of our happiness.