ENVIRONMENT AND SUSTAINABILITY
Having devoted my whole professional life to ecology, the environment and
sustainability, it is natural that I have also tried to apply my
principles in my own life. This page is my personal view of what
sustainability means for me, with the constraints and limitations of where
I live, what I can afford, and what is practical as I try to balance many,
often conflicting, priorities. It is also summarized in my suggestions
for sustainable living.
We are trapped in a material civilization that does not always give us
many options. If we want to be of service to society, we may make
different choices than if we were thinking only of ourselves. We also have
different needs and possibilities at different times in our lives, for
instance with or without family responsibilities. We take many things for
granted, and have never questioned their relevance for sustainability.
I am constantly asking questions about even the least significant aspects
of life and lifestyle, and experiment with changes that might lighten my
footprint upon the earth. There is no one right way to do things that
applies to everyone, but maybe my personal path to sustainability will
give you some ideas for your own. This page will continue to grow and
evolve along with my lifestyle.
My approach to sustainability has been profoundly influenced, first, by
my beliefs as a Bahá'í and the vision of a
sustainable future society that the Bahá'ís are working to build, and
second, by all that I have learned and continue to learn as an
environmental scientist and ecologist, working with governments and the
international community to achieve more sustainable development. Those
views are expressed well on the site of the International
Environment Forum which I maintain.
I give priority now to reducing climate change, protecting ecosystems and
biodiversity, and minimizing natural resource consumption so that there
will be enough for everyone. I am also trying to learn to be more
resilient and less dependent on those aspects of our material civilization
that would be most vulnerable in a major international crisis or
catastrophe, although the best protection is a strong sense of community
solidarity wherever you live.
Some more reflections on these topics can be found in my blog
collected from various sources.
MY EFFORT TO LIVE
The first foundation of a sustainable lifestyle is contentment with
little, getting off the consumer treadmill and focussing on what you
really need. Another essential principle is moderation, neither
over-indulgence nor complete denial, appreciating things without excess.
The intangible things in life, like social relationships, knowledge,
science, culture, art, beauty, contact with nature and the acquisition of
spiritual qualities, are much more important than material things once
basic needs are met, so why waste time and effort on a materialistic
lifestyle and the consumer culture?
Since I still need to consume some things, I apply the following
principles of sustainable consumption:
- usefulness: do I really need it?
- prevention: can I minimize impacts on the environment, health, society,
- efficiency: how was the article produced and delivered, using the least
natural resources and energy, with decent working conditions?
- quality: will it last a long time, avoiding the need to replace it?
- solidarity: has it been produced and marketed in socially-responsible
ways, with equitable sharing of profits?
Many factors can make housing more sustainable, including location, size,
quality of construction, heating/cooling, lighting, materials, etc. In
Geneva, I have always tried to find housing as close to my work place as
possible, so for 15 years I lived within a few minutes walk of my office.
When my office moved across town, I moved as well. Obviously there are
many things you cannot control in a rented apartment, but I have installed
energy-saving LED light bulbs wherever possible, reduced water flow at the
taps, weatherstripped the windows, and have no appliances with standby.
Since I live alone, my little studio apartment
is very small and full of books, with just enough space to circulate
between work areas. I have always aimed for an efficient use of space, and
none is wasted in my apartment.
When I decided to stay in Geneva on retirement, I wanted again to be able
to garden, to rebuild something (restoring old houses has been a hobby all
my adult life) and to have some contact with nature. Housing is very
expensive in Geneva, so I decided to divide my living space between a
minimum urban residence in Vernier, a largely
working-class suburb of Geneva, and a small place in the French
countryside not too far away. I moved from what was then a two room
apartment into a smaller studio (29 m2), and with the money I
saved on rent I bought a small abandoned chalet (35 m2) in a
forest 40 km (40 minutes) away at the southern end of the Jura mountains
in Haute Savoie, France.
For the story of the chalet, its forest and my activities there, see the
separate chalet page. In a sense, I now have a
residence in two halves, with my bedroom in Geneva and my living room and
garden in France. Each has complementary sustainability advantages. I try
to go back and forth only once a week to reduce my transport impact.
While I was limited by the existing structure of the chalet, I have
completely insulated it from the outside, use a low-pollution wood heater
for most heating, burning wood which I cut myself in my forest
(supplemented by radiant electric heaters in bedrooms and bathroom),
collect rainwater from the roof for toilet flushing, made an opening in
the livingroom ceiling to benefit from natural light from the roof window
in the bedroom above, use low-energy mostly LED lighting, and in general
try to keep a minimal ecological footprint. Once the chalet overcomes its
thermal inertia, it remains a comfortable 19°C from the wood stove even in
the coldest weather.
As mentioned above, the main heat source in my chalet is wood that I cut
myself. In the kitchen I use either an induction hotplate and a microwave
oven, which cook faster and with less energy than other electric cooking, a
stove using bottled gas, or a wood-burning stove. I should like to install
solar panels on the roof, but in the forest surrounded by tall trees, my
roof is in the shade most of the time except mid-summer. While I have a
large lawn (800 m2) of natural grasses, plants and mosses, I use a push
mower and sythe to mow it most of the time. I also use hand tools as much as
possible, such as for cutting up firewood, although power tools are
essential for big jobs.
My electricity is basically from renewable sources: in Geneva I pay the
highest rate for ecologically certified renewable energy (all of the city's
electricity is from renewable sources), and the chalet is supplied by a
local, publicly-owned utility with a hydroelectric dam on the nearby Rhone
River. I have few electrical appliances, and most are highly rated for
Geneva has excellent public transport, with frequent trolley-buses and trams
a short walk from my apartment, so that is my first preference. I used to
walk to work, and shop mostly at a shopping centre a 13 minute walk from my
apartment. I restrict my use of a small old car to heavy shopping and going
to my chalet, where there is no public transport, about once a week. An
energy audit suggested that it was best to keep an old car until it wears
out, before replacing it with a more energy-efficient model, which hopefully
will be far improved by then. I gave up my last small car after 25 years. I
bought an electric bicycle for travel to my chalet, but the 35 kilometers of
hilly terrain is difficult at my age, and will require more effort for me to
get sufficiently in shape to go all the way. I have a folding bicycle, but
do not have much need for it. Still, I drive less than 5,000 km per year, so
it takes a long time to wear a car out.
I do not take travel vacations for pleasure. Going to my chalet already
provides a vacation experience as part of the normal variety in my life. I
already travel so much that any opportunity to
stay at home is a real vacation.
For trips, Swiss and French trains are excellent, and I prefer them for
medium distances. My big ecological sin is air travel. Whether in
international work for the United Nations, organizing and speaking at NGO
conferences, lecturing at universities, or occasionally visiting part
of my widespread family (combined with other service), I cannot avoid
extensive air travel. I try to ensure that the services I can render to
humanity on a trip compensate for the environmental damage done. I do not
have sufficient confidence in the present carbon credit schemes for
financially compensating for air travel to support them directly, and prefer
to invest in more fundamental changes in society.
In the world today, one third of all food produced is lost without being
consumed, either because of poor storage and transport, because it has
cosmetic defects or is not sold in time, or as food waste in the home. I
almost never throw anything away uneaten (unless it is really covered in
mould), partly by buying only what I know I can eat, by not leaving food
uneaten on my plate, by reusing leftovers, and by paying little attention to
sell-by or consume-by dates which are generally conservative, often by 4
weeks or more.
Calculating the energy cost and environmental impact of food is complicated:
vegetables grown locally in a heated greenhouse may require more energy than
those shipped from far away, and bulk transport may use less energy than
your drive home from the supermarket. I eat little frozen or pre-prepared
food, favouring fresh produce, locally grown if possible. Cooking in the
microwave, a pressure cooker on the induction plate, or several things
together in a single pot, saves energy. Breakfast is fresh fruit and a large
bowl of Swiss meusli (mixed whole grain cereal with nuts and dried fruit)
with low-fat milk. Simple, wholesome food, cheese or yoghurt and whole grain
bread for lunch, with a little meat (not beef) or fish at dinner, and at
least 5 daily portions of vegetables and fresh fruits, are the core of my
diet. I only eat out when I am with other people. At my chalet, I prefer
cheese and butter from the dairy in my local village, presumably made with
milk from the cows I watch grazing, all within 2 kilometers. Food cannot be
more local than that, except from my own garden. My attempts at a vegetable
garden have not been too successful, although I have been eating my
own potatoes for a few months each year. I have planted a number of fruit
trees, but it will be some years before they bear much fruit. Tapwater is my
main beverage, and occasionally fruit juices (100% juice), so I avoid the
need to heat water for tea. I have never developed a taste for coffee, and
have never consumed alcoholic drinks.
In Geneva, I shop mostly at a big shopping centre a 13 minute walk from my
apartment, with a Migros supermarket whose values I appreciate. It
is a customer-owned cooperative that sells no alcoholic beverages or tobacco
products, features its own socially- and environmentally-responsible items,
avoids the multiplication of branded products by stocking largely its own
brands, and maintains high quality at close to the lowest prices in
Switzerland. It reduces food waste to less than 3% by close relationships
with its suppliers, care in processing and transport, and providing unsold
food to local charities. It is not a local farmer's market, but a reasonable
compromise for an urban area.
The water in Geneva comes from western Europe's largest lake and is of
excellent quality, so I drink tap water most of the time, rather than
bottled beverages. I run faucets and the shower at low volume with
water-saver attachments, and added objects to my toilet tank to reduce the
volume of each flush by 1.5 liters. I do not let the water run when it is
not immediately needed. Too many bath and shower valves require high flow to
operate properly, but mine sticks so that, with a low-flow shower head, I
can take a shower with 15-20 liters of water.
At my chalet, where I have control of the plumbing, I have to pump water
from the spring-fed village supply up to my water tank (a solar-powered pump
is one of my future projects). The low-pressure gravity flow from the tank
to the house reduces water use to the minimum. I turn on the 15 liter water
heater only for showering, and take a comfortable shower with 10-15 liters
of water using a low-flow pulsed shower head. The toilet is flushed with
rainwater from the roof. I also use rainwater for most garden watering. My
average annual consumption of water from the mains is less than 25 cubic
Clothing is not a topic many people think of when it comes to
sustainability, but more with respect to social responsibility in its
manufacture. Yet washing clothes uses energy and water or dry-cleaning
chemicals and produces pollution. I therefore try to minimise the weight and
volume of my clothing, to wear clothes requiring dry cleaning only when
necessary, and to wash full loads at an economy cycle with a simple
no-phosphate detergent dosed carefully. I now manage with two loads of
washing once a month. I do use a dryer because my apartment has no balcony
or possibility of hanging clothes outside, and is too small to hang out
clothes inside. I avoid clothes that require ironing, and do not mind a few
wrinkles. Having light compact clothing also keeps the weight and volume of
my suitcase down when traveling, so I generally carry only a knapsack.
When I do dirty work, I assume that it is
easier to wash me than my clothes, and wear as little as possible. Using
short sleeves also saves fabric. I try to use the minimum number of layers
required by the weather. Having tried what I can do without, I am amazed at
how little clothing is needed to keep warm even in moderately cold weather,
provided one stays active.
Wearing less clothing in cool weather also helps to keep my weight down.
Recent research shows that even adults still have some brown fat around the
neck and shoulders, and brown fat burns white fat to keep the body warm. In
one research project, the brown fat lit up in infrared photographs when an
arm was plunged in cold water, so going out with arms uncovered even in cold
weather seems to raise metabolism and burn calories. I have tried it and
lost several extra kilos.
The origin of the fabric is a more difficult choice. Synthetic fibres wash
and dry more easily, do not require ironing (energy intensive), and hardly
wear out. Nor do they decompose in landfills, as I found out when I dug up
clothing buried 30 years ago in a trash heap on my property, some of which
was still wearable. But burning synthetics adds to greenhouse gases. Natural
fibres like cotton and wool do not come from petrochemicals and are
greenhouse gas neutral, but cleaning them may require more energy and water.
Much cotton today is produced in unsustainable agriculture with heavy
chemical and energy use, and often health impacts on farm workers. Clothing
from organic cotton is only gradually becoming more common. I therefore use
some of each. Nylon socks almost never wear out, but cotton underwear is
more comfortable. Blends of synthetic and natural fibres are more practical
for shirts and pants.
The choice of fabric is less significant because I try not to discard any
clothing until it is truly worn out. I also learned to sew as a child (my
mother's sewing machine fascinated me), so I can pull out my hand-powered
sewing machine or a needle and thread and repair things when necessary. I
pick conservative timeless styles, and keep clothing until it comes back
into style. When 1970s styles again became popular, I already had them in my
closet. The ads in the junk mail show me which colours are "in" and I select
accordingly from a 50 year accumulation, adding a few useful items from
half-price end of season sales. The corollary of this approach is not to
gain weight, so that you can still wear your clothes of 40 years ago. I do
have some problems now slipping into old pants.
For bath and hand towels, I have reduced the size and thickness of the
fabric to the minimum needed to dry me effectively. With small cloth napkins
at the table, and kitchen towels, I hardly ever use disposable paper
I have become increasingly suspicious of all the chemicals in household
products and aim for simplicity: simple bath soap without perfume;
vinegar-based toilet and bathroom cleaners; zero phosphate detergent for
clothes-washing (obligatory in Geneva to protect the lake); simple shampoo
with only herbal additives, etc. I try to use as little as possible, and
avoid things that may leave residues or release volatile compounds into the
air. My rare pesticide use is limited to wasp's nests, and ants in the
house, with cedar blocks in the woolens against clothes moths. My garden is
free of chemical industry products.
I also avoid automedication, and take medicines only when prescribed by a
doctor. A simple healthy diet and adequate rest seem sufficient to keep me
in good health most of the time.
Fortunately I live in places where recycling is well established, so I
recycle everything I can. In Geneva recycling bins for paper, glass and
plastic bottles are in each building, and the recycling depot for more
complex items like aluminum and cans, batteries, compostable organics,
clothing, etc. is just a two minute walk from my apartment. In France, a big
recycling centre is just a short detour on the road to my chalet. Appliances
and light bulbs go back to the stores that sell them. At the chalet, I have
my own compost pile. I try to generate as little waste as possible, reusing
what can be reused, recycling what can be, and avoiding throw-away products.
I use cloth napkins and shopping bags, and a minimum of paper towels. What
little trash is left is mostly plastic packaging, which in Geneva is
incinerated to make electricity.
We are drowning in information, and bombarded by the media with messages we
did not ask for (2500 per day). It is another kind of pollution. I do not
have a television, having decided years ago that I did not like the way it
passively manipulated my thinking and emotions. I listen to the news (France
Info) on the radio during meals, as much for the weather as anything,
and read two weekly periodicals: the Guardian Weekly for general
news, compiling the best articles from The Guardian (UK), Le
Monde (Paris) and the Washington Post (USA), as well as the New
Scientist for scientific and environmental news. This is enough for me
to stay well informed, and keeping up with these is already a challenge,
since I usually spend more time writing than reading. E-mail is now the main
medium of communication with family, friends and professional contacts,
although the flood is now difficult to keep up with. For social media, I
have a Linked-in page, occasionally post something on Facebook, and of
course have this relatively complete web site. Admittedly, much of popular
culture escapes me completely, but...
I dislike advertising, and even remove the labels from containers around the
house to avoid having their brand names and messages in front of me every
I do pay attention to the aesthetics of my surroundings: paintings on the
walls from artists that I admire (at least on the few walls without
bookcases), a few simple but beautiful objects from various cultures:
Chinese, Japanese, Pacific Islands, Africa, etc. or natural objects: shells,
stones; and always lots of green plants. My musical tastes are mostly
classical, apart from the bird songs around my chalet. The beauty of nature
is an essential part of my aesthetic experience, whether at my chalet,
on walks in the local parks or hikes in the
mountains, or when traveling, as you can see on my travel