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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Measuring Environmental Impact

           If you are an avid reader of my ramblings, which I am sure most of you are, you have probably picked up on my tendencies to write about the environment both on large and small scales. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about carbon footprints, my individual environmental impacts, and how mine have changed since I moved to Paraguay a year and a half ago. Anyone can calculate his or her carbon footprint online for free if you are so inclined. Provided you have the necessary information to fill in the questions it can take as little as 10-minutes. Having completed carbon footprint tests at several junctures during academic career in high school and college I had come to the conclusion that no matter how sustainably you live your life most Americans have a pretty large footprint. Being able to develop a conscience about reducing ones carbon footprint is a difficult task, but is seemingly becoming more and more important in the American mainstream. Dozens of websites, magazines, and newspapers advertise how one can make their lives greener and reduce their carbon footprint. Reading about all these ways to save energy and reduce individuals carbon emissions in America got me thinking a lot about Paraguay and individuals carbon footprints here. After I took a look at several websites series of questions raging from energy consumption to transportation frequency, I came to the conclusion that it would be next impossible for me to effectively measure my impact here in Paraguay.

            For starters, my lifestyle here is very different than it was in the States. Many of those reasons are seemingly obvious, but the more I thought about them the more I realized how diverging my lifestyle actually is. I don't drive a car, when I travel I do so on public transportation, I consume more food that is grown locally because of Paraguay's economy is shaped, and all my electricity is pirated and produced hydroelectrically. I get my water from a well that, when I have it functioning, an electric pump propels into a water tank over my house. When I don't have the pump working, I flush my toilet, bath, and wash dishes the old fashion way by filling up buckets of well water by hand. The materials used to build my house are as follows: wood, metal roofing, nails, glass windows, metal bars protecting the windows, bricks, cement, and that's about it. My house has no insulation, no carpet, no air ducts, nor a sophisticated plumping system. Even in the nicer houses in the area, relatively speaking, there are not many differences in lifestyles. It is rare to see an air-conditioning unit because they are expensive and drive up the costs of electricity. Winter is short and often only cold for a part of a day eliminating the need for a heater. I find myself wondering if I am making conscience decisions to live "greener" here or am now a product of the circumstances surrounding my life?
            When I was in America I felt, over time, more conscience about the environment and how I could reduce my carbon footprint and live greener as I was growing up. Back home that included things like unplugging appliances, buying certain products, or recycling. Here those choices aren't as easy, but people live more sustainably. Granted Paraguay is a developing country, and within the wealthiest areas of the country there are many people who live more like an average American. For the vast majority of the population, however, people are doing a much better job of being green based on the definitions and indicators of your average carbon footprint test that is sponsored by some American institution or non-profit. Then again here in Paraguay the choices people make are less often predicated on environmental impact and aren't the socially conscience choices, but rather they ones will allow them to become more socially mobile.
            A good example is flight to urban areas. This is a trend seen in countless countries for reasons that range from inability to make a living off the land to better job prospects in the cities. In Paraguay, this phenomenon is similar to other larger countries like Brazil or China in that young people are flocking to the cities in droves to find work to help support their families, but uniquely different for number of reasons. Paraguay's economy is dominated by agricultural commodities particularly soybeans and corn. Most Paraguayans grew up farming, still farm, or at least own land somewhere that is still used for food production. Seemingly everyone knows how to grow food and maintain a field. A distinct part of rural communities identities are the cooperative nature of the families. None of us have much, but we live and work together is how the relationships come off to me. That identity is in changing due to the rapid population growth and limited opportunities to continue the traditional livelihoods. Many farmers, in a similar fashion to what happened in America beginning in the 1970s, have sold, leased, or lost their land to larger landholders who have the capital to absorb smaller farms. Young people are more and more drawn to the idea of moving to a city, finding a more white-collar job, and working the 40-hour workweek to attain a better standard of living. That standard is more and more measured by the ability to obtain things like television, nice phones, or air-conditioning. The countryside is progressively becoming a shell of its former self with a huge percentage of the population being older people still working the land, and their grandchildren. The parents have increasingly left the small rural communities in search of job and educational opportunities in the cities leaving the responsibility of child caring to grandparents. It is almost like they want the culture of the rural community with the commodities attainable from life in the city. None of this is uncommon with regards to development, but it begs to question whether environmental consciousness questions evolves as a country develops, and its economy shifts?
            Carbon footprint tests, environmental impact assessments, or whatever measure used to determine health of an environment have inherent biases. Paraguay is poor country that for the first half of the 20th century had most of its people living off the land. That lifestyle caused minimal damage to their environment, but also meant that there was virtually no enforceable legislation or services from its government because of how poor and isolated communities were. As its economy entered world markets in the 1960s, rapid deforestation took place to meet the demands for wood that developed countries were now not cutting down within there own boarders. The results of rapid developments effects on the environment and the consequences were being seen in places like America, but had not yet been witnessed in a country like Paraguay. The same story goes for industrial agriculture. It brings a lot of money to the country, but also brings causes land degradation and pollution to run rampant making it harder to live in the traditional fashion most people are accustomed to. It also forces those young people to leave the rural area for the urban in search of jobs to support their families. All the while families are more and more exposed and influenced by the resulting trends of a more developed economy. Those trends include changes in diet that lead to high-blood pressure and diabetes, a loss of vocational skills, and the slow degradation of small communities.
Itaipu Hydroelectric Dam
            This trend leads people to make their livelihoods through practices that the developed world find detestable like rooting through garbage to find valuable metals to name one example. There is no question in a carbon footprint test that measures amount and kind of garbage an individual burned. They don't ask how many liters of pesticides you spray on your land, and they don't inquire about shifting diets resulting from less consumption of locally grown foods into industrial food chains. My purpose in writing this was at first to do a personal assessment of my environmental impacts from when I was in America to now, but realized that I couldn't do it because I couldn't effectively include aspects of my life here to the formula provided in the tests. If someone breaks a florescent light bulb on the ground near my house I have no idea how much mercury I am now exposed to. When the dump one kilometer down the road is lit on fire to prevent garbage from blowing on someone’s land I have not the slightest clue if the wind is blowing in my direction and the impact that has on me especially if I put trash in a trash can that ended up at the dump that is now on fire. Without a doubt my carbon footprint here is way less than it would be in the states. I bike everywhere, only take buses about once or twice a week on average, I have a garden, I use a well, my power comes from a hydroelectric source, and my house is as simple as can be.
            Paraguayans care about there environment in same way that Americans do, but where they are in terms of development is more along the lines of where America was after WWII and into the 1950s-60s when companies were highly polluting and environmental degradation was at its worse. As a result Paraguay has some of the most modern and innovative environmental laws in its constitution, but the forces of development and progress impede the ability to enforce those laws effectively. Subsequently it can appear as if Paraguayans don't care about there environment when reality their decision making is a result of circumstances. It was easy for me to recycle cans, bottles, papers, and plastics growing up when all I had to do was throw it in a green container provided by the city. It is not easy to do that when the town I currently live in barely has enough money to collect garbage in the center of the town to dump in an open pit landfill on the outskirts. I feel that it is easy for my generation to scoff at those developing countries that have widespread environmental degradation that is getting worse by the day, but we weren’t around when America reached the point where those mentalities began to change making it easier to adopt a more socially conscience approach.
            I recognize that a number of different factors contribute an individual's, community's, or country's environmental awareness. People are products of the times, and there is never a perfect model in comparing differing societies relationship with there environment, but if one considers where America came from not long that long ago I bet that it would be very reminiscent to what Paraguay looks like today. A history teach in school once said to me in the middle ages if you took a rural farmer in time machine and set the dial to 100 years in the future their decedents would probably be doing the same thing in the same place speaking essentially the same language. If you took you great grandmother and did the same thing they likely wouldn't be able to function because of all the changes. This applies to environmental consciousness in the same way it applies to other aspects of life like work, education, and culture.
             My goals for this entry were to do a comparison of my environmental impacts here and back home. I quickly found out however, that it was more difficult than I initially thought. Societies are constantly changing with the times. America seems to shifting back towards many of those traditional values such as growing ones own food, getting deeply involved in communities, and slowly realizing that relationships are more important that commodities. It is a slow process that takes generations. Will Paraguay follow that trend or will change global attitudes shift the direction of this countries development completely? Obviously I have no idea, but it will surely be interesting to see what happens.

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