Story about the joys

of shopping:
 



Trying to get life 
in balance.... 
with Americans 

 

Copenhagen, June 1996 

I want to send all of you - especially in California - an apology. Yesterday when I was shopping I ended up buying non-organic raisins. I knew very well that I helped pollute your land in California. But at the same time I also got a little mad at you out there for not really giving me too much of a choice. Why do I have to pay twice as much for organic raisins - or 5 dollars pr. 500 gram (17 ounces) - as I do for non-organic raisins when they both come from America. For European produced food the difference is now less than 10% between organic and non-organic. 

Now you might all think that I am some health-fanatic hippie- crazed food shopper, but I am not. I belong to the conservative end of food shoppers in Europe - mainly because I joined the ecological wave very late - as a result of spending too much time in America. So why am I writing this. Not only because it is my vacation time and I have time for some letter writing to friends I see much too little, but also because I have for the last few years - going back and forth to America - noticed the growing difference in environmental awareness between Europe and America. I have started telling American students in universities about it, but since Europeans in so many ways are now so far ahead in this aspect, I have to be careful not to come off as a national chauvinist - especially when I have many other issues in the show I want to talk about - such as racism - where I actually feel Europeans are falling behind America in these years (believe it or not, buried as you are in racial problems in America). But since the environmental issue is of global concern I would like to press the issue more in America. And where is there a better place to start than with your personal friends. 

So I would like to tell you a little about what has happened in Europe for the last ten years. Some of you might have heard a little bit about it, but it has in many ways been a silent revolution - and so far I haven't seen much mentioning of it in the broad American media - at least not in News week and Time which I get here 

I told some of you the other day about the joys I have in house keeping (when I am not on tour) and one of the things I like most about it is the shopping aspect it involves: simply to notice - day by day - this quiet revolution changing the shelves in our super markets - the joy of being on the barricades there along with millions of other European revolutionaries. For what is most amazing about it is that it is a genuine grassroots revolution - changing the entire structure of our production system. 

This I have also seen sporadic examples of in America, where it actually started, but it never really spread there. In most big cities in America there will be one or two small so-called organic food stores. In San Francisco I remember we always shopped at the one on 16th St, in Minneapolis there is also a nice little one and in New York quite a few spread around. But what always struck me in those stores was that they mostly were frequented by a few hippie-looking or more alternative life-style looking people in loose clothes etc. Perhaps not so much any more, but it certainly is not "the masses," as we used to say on the left, who go there, because then they would be much too small. What also made me a little skeptical about these stores was that I couldn't help get the feeling that it was just another selfish American trait, that most people bought organic food because they wanted to improve their own health. This is not a bad goal, of course, but it is self-oriented even though some might have given lip- service at the same time to more idealistic environmental visions. I think the name "organic food stores" along the way also changed to "health food stores." 

In Europe quite the opposite seems to be the case. Danish people, for instance, are among the worst smokers in the world - and since I am an enthusiastic supporter of the American anti-smoking movement (although it again is primarily self-centered) - I can't help notice how many of those who come out of supermarkets with shopping carts full of "ecological food", as it is called here, are of the heavy chain smoking or beer drinking types. Health wise the Danes are among the most suicidal in the world. 
No, most of the "revolutionaries" over here clearly are not in this revolution for personal health reasons - unless we take the long range visions of environmentalism into account. 
Another interesting part - now I come to think of it - is that I have never to this day seen a single (exclusively) organic food store in Europe. So the revolution must from the beginning have taken place in the broad super market system ("you can't change society from a ghetto!"), which indicates that it never was a question of any special alternative life style. The producers, however, started out as alternative lifestyle farms. The first organic food in the supermarkets came from the many young people who moved out in communes in the 70s, but there is no way these few communes can keep up with the consumer demand any more. 

What is amazing is how fast it is growing. This year the supermarkets promised consumers to three-double the production of organic milk and milk products - since the organic milk shelves are empty already in the afternoon - so angry costumers have to go home with normal "old- fashioned" milk. 

The problem is that the farmers can't change fast enough. The ecological food production is under strict government control and in order for a farmer to call his milk "ecological" he must not have used pesticides or fertilizers on his farm land for 5 years during which time production therefore falls without any compensation in the form of higher "ecological" prices. Government inspectors come around all the time to check that none of the winter food for the cows or the hay they lay on originate from non-organic farms. Since ecological farms are spread evenly in the landscape among non-ecological farms, government inspectors even have to check all the farmer's accounting to verify that he/she did not buy the hay from a non-authorized neighbor. Since ecological food costs more than non-ecological food, it would otherwise be easy for Mafia farmers to cheat and make more money. 

So on top of paying higher prices for the food, the consumers now also have to pay higher taxes for this enormous government control apparatus. And they are more than willing to pay higher taxes for the environment, they say, on top of  the 60% of their salaries they were already paying.  Again I can't help compare with America where the opposite trend seems the rule:  wanting to cut government control in order to save on taxes. (Our only republican style anti-tax party here gets less than 5% of the vote and is constantly shrinking in size). 

A huge amount of the taxes also goes for environmental research with endless studies on which kind of production is most environmentally sound. The consumers want complete information, so the studies have to take into account every imaginable environmental effect. This often leads to amazing results. For a long time e.g. I bought non-organic lettuce grown in Denmark in the belief that organic lettuce from Spain would pollute more with the long transportation. Wrong, said the government studies, because lettuce from Denmark is produced in heated green houses part of the year. So immediately the consumers change to Spanish lettuce. 

Or this week another study showed that organic potatoes from Egypt are more ecological than organic potatoes grown in Denmark. I don't remember the details here, but logically that doesn't make much sense of course and this is why the word "ecological" is used rather than the old-fashioned word "organic". Where organic implies only the non-use of pesticides and fertilizers, "ecological" incorporates all environmental factors such as transportation, energy used to produce the machines etc. 

This is also why the little American organic food stores could never earn the highly sought label "ecological" over here. To get to these stores in the average American city you have to drive past perhaps 20 big supermarkets - thereby causing far more energy waste and hazards to the environment than if you had bought non-organic food in your local grocery store. Even if you fill up your car entirely you don't have a chance of becoming ecologically correct, since you now have to use more electricity for refrigeration or throw out some rotten produce after a while. 

If this sounds like just another unbearable "politically correct" movement has been created in Europe it is part right and part wrong. For nowhere do I see pointed fingers or people telling each other: "I am more correct than you." People shop side by side in supermarkets, some take only ecological groceries, some rarely, while most mix them as they feel - or as they can afford on that particular day. No, it is a very quiet revolution and what counts is that the total amount of ecological foods sold goes up day by day, so that more and more of the farm land is being "liberated" - whereby more and more of the oceans are being cleaned up. One joke has it that one day we will even be able to buy government controlled "ecological fish." 

It is not only a joke, but also the quiet goal. For what caused this silent revolution was all the horror stories over the last 20 years of dying oceans, oceans suddenly green from strange algae, seals and fish with strange diseases etc. - all caused by the pesticides flowing from farmland into rivers into oceans. Not to speak about the environmental horrors we suddenly saw in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. People realized that they had to change personal behavior. This is quite a revolution in Europe, where people have always taken it for granted that the government should solve all their problems. 

At first the farmers were slow to change, for we all know that farmers tend to be conservative. My wife sat next to a farmer to a wedding 8 years ago and during the whole dinner he went on and on complaining about all us city people who were now dictating farmers to change and give up something that had worked so well for ages. (Denmark is one of the leading food exporters in the world). 

Well, first of all the ecological movement is not city based any longer, but universal. And second, the farmers - or most - have long since seen the benefits of changing. For there are many interesting side rewards. For a long time farms had become bigger and bigger industrial farms - forcing many smaller family farms to give up. With the more labor intensive ecological farming the family farms are now coming back - something everybody enjoys since they also look better in the landscape. 

Also the industry has seen the light and now every company seems to be rushing in a fast race against time to be the first to produce "ecological cake", "ecological beer" and all such food products made of many ingredients. To be "ecologically government approved" every single ingredient (such as pepper, coriander etc.) has to be ecologically grown, so it is not so simple as it sounds. Many ingredients are coming from third world countries with no ecological awareness. So "the big corporations" (that used to be a bad word!) are now in the forefront running all over in the Third World to establish ecological production and industries - thereby spreading the ecological awareness. Since everybody realizes that the whole world eventually will have to go ecological, those companies who do not invest enough in ecological research and production are seen as eventual loosers. 

Since there is not much ecological consumer pressure in America, American consumers are actually betraying their own future industrial competitiveness and will loose jobs to the overseas. In Europe every industry now knows which way the wind is blowing. A good case in point was the huge research made in wind energy in Denmark during the gas crisis in the 70s, which today has made Denmark the leading wind mill exporter in the world. Quite a few of the wind mills in California - not least the hundreds on the hills in Livermore - are Danish. Since our own landscapes are already littered with wind mills, they now make wind mill parks in the oceans - and invest in above the clouds altitude wind power research. 

There are huge amounts of money to be made for those who come first in ecological production. Farmers and individuals are given tax-incentives to put up their own wind mills in Denmark (I have just bought shares in a windmill park in the port of Copenhagen) - and the electricity companies by law have to buy the surplus electricity they produce. That way we can gradually cut down on ecologically destructive coal import from South Africa. 

It seems that American business has been slow in catching the message. Every day do I see Douver Farm Organic Cornflakes from Britain making inroads on Kellogg's on our shelf spaces - mainly because American consumers have not given Battle Creek much pressure - or support! Kellogg's was not slow to change to high-fiber bran products when the self-centered American health wave forced it to. And since you haven't put pressure on Minuit Maid to make ecological orange juice, it also seems like Florida will be loosing out to ecological orange juice from Spain, Morocco and Israel over here. 

Just imagine the money Philip Morris could have made among tobacco starving Danes by producing ecological cigarettes! But in the current mood of anti-government regulation in the US I find it hard to imagine Danish government inspectors trampling around in the fields of Jesse Helm's home territory demanding to see the accounting books of tobacco farmers to verify that they have not bought non-ecological seeds from a neighbor. 

The problem is that such government inspection is necessary as long as ecological farming has to thrive side by side with non-ecological farming. Eventually we see for us how the entire European Community simply bans the use of pesticides and fertilizers everywhere - thereby cutting this wasteful government bureaucracy. (Latest 1997: right now the Danish government is seriously considering becoming the first entirely ecological country!) But basically it is hard to outlaw pesticide farming until the whole world does it, since the more expensive ecological farming probably cannot compete on a world market of non-ecologically aware consumers. 

In this sense you Americans are increasingly becoming the worst polluters of our oceans and the environment over here. For as long as so many Danish farmers can still sell non- ecological milk-products to the US and non-ecological pork to Japan and feta cheese to Iran etc you give them no economic incentive to switch to ecological farming. If you instead started demanding ecological Danish Tilsit, Carlsberg beer, Danish ham and butter cookies in your supermarkets you would help the ecological movement in Europe tremendously. But also your own since this would be a way of gradually forcing ecological foods and awareness into mainstream stores in America thereby forcing American food producers and farmers gradually to switch. (I here just mention the Danish products I know from American stores. There are many other European ecological products to choose from, of course). 

If you in America switched to ecological farming, you would by the way have an enormous (unfair) competitive advantage over our farmers. Since ecological farming is so labor intensive, you could use all your cheap Mexican labor and ridiculously low minimum wages to totally out-compete European farmers. Even Clinton's new minimum wage is still only one third ours. More cynical Americans might suggest that the reason Europeans are so eager to switch is that we had to sign the WTO-free trade agreements. Without the previous subsidies our farmers would have been knocked out by American farmers unless we had found new hidden subsidies to play by - such as ecological prices. (The ecological wave, however, started long before the Montevideo agreements). 

That huge commercial interests are at stake we witness daily on the news. A case in point right now is Denmark's beer bottle war with Sweden and the EU. The EU insist that we open our beer market for imported beer on cans. Denmark has since the 1930s had the world's best return bottle policy. 99% of all bottles are returned and refilled. Therefore our environmental minister insist that this ecologically is the most cost beneficial - so it is only regretful that we thus keep beer companies from far away - such as Heineken - out of our market. Wrong, says the Swedes, who allowed beer cans 5 years ago and want access to our market. A bottle is on the average used 30 times, a beer can can be melted 10 times before new aluminum has to be used - but since the cans are 9.8 times lighter, you save more energy on transportation. 

The battle goes on and on with new studies day after day. Right now they are about even in the use of energy - and have gone on to measuring the effect on the break down of the ozone layer - and the environmental cost of hospitalization for the workers who have to lift the heavier glass bottles down from trucks - causing a higher frequency of back problems for which they are qualified for high disability pensions etc. etc. The EU fair play rules favor the kinds of production which gives the environment most fair play by causing least ecological damage. This naturally gives rise to endless studies and great job opportunities for unemployed scientists. 

In terms of recycling Germany is by far the most advanced country. Everything there such as computers has to be built so that it can be recycled - and everywhere you see the many trash cans people have to sort their garbage in. When I drove through East Germany right after the fall of communism, I saw the bewildered former communist citizens, who never had anything to recycle before, stand in the new McDonald restaurants sorting out their garbage in 6 different cans for plastic, paper, brown glass, white glass etc. 

Consumer pressure is also changing the institutions by forcing them to buy ecological products. Thus we get more and more "ecological" schools, government agencies, work places and even prisons (again: not for the health of the prisoners, but for the environment). Prisoners are by the way doing their share for environment, for they are producing and repairing the thousands of free bicycles we have in Copenhagen so that American tourists will not have any excuse for polluting while you are here. 

This travel aspect is interesting and contradictory. Since Scandinavians and Germans are the most traveling people in the world (greatly polluting the air with long distance trips to Vietnam, Africa, Peru etc.), they have now introduced "ecological" charter trips to ensure that these tourists cause the least environmental, social and political damage in the countries they visit. Garbage- and Coca Cola free trekking in Nepal, non-air-conditioned hotels in Vietnam - and right now of course in the case of our newest favorite tourist spot, Burma, we are not supposed to use the hotels at all since this will benefit the military dictatorship. To me it would seem more "ecological" to stay home, period!, but how can you blame our many unemployed from taking off, when they get 90% of their previous salaries for 5-7 years for staying home and 80% if they travel. Since you can live much cheaper in Third World countries, thousands are taking off for years with all their children to trample down sensitive rain forests - or sensitive native populations - while the tax payers at home have to work harder and harder to pay for this environmental destruction - eagerly awaiting their own turn to become unemployed. 

Luckily the government has made a good rotation policy so that everybody are entitled to this welfare, but it might give you an idea of why it is so hard for anti-tax parties in Europe to get any votes. One positive outcome of all this destructive traveling is that the population - especially the least educated part of it who are most often unemployed - in these face to face encounters with Third World poverty becomes more and more socially and environmentally aware and committed to pay even higher taxes for development assistance. 

It is also interesting to see how the ecological consumer awareness gradually is being expanded to include animal welfare. This trend you have probably seen in America too. The consumers are demanding that farm animals get a "humane" treatment - and they are willing to pay for it. This takes up additional shelf space (which as you know from the huge American supermarkets uses lots of electricity) so it is not really an ecologically good idea. We already for long have had to make room for both normal old-fashioned eggs (from chickens in cages), ecological eggs, free-range eggs, ecological free-range eggs, but now we also get the newest concept: "liberated chicken's eggs" and "ecologically liberated chicken's eggs." (Each of these concepts subdivided in 3 different sizes). 
But I love to see the return of the old-style romantic family farm I remember from my childhood when walking with my grandfather I had to stop at the chicken running around every farm. For years nobody had seen any chickens and for city children the sight of a pig was more unusual than the sight of an elephant in the Zoo. 

We have for long had ecological meat products, but now the consumers are also pressing to have "liberated" meat. They are willing to pay for the much higher cost of having cows, pigs, chicken etc running around in the open and for government inspectors to go around to measure that each pig really has the required amount of square miles to be called "liberated." Just the other day our minister of environment promised the consumers that they would get a new official government approved stamp in the stores for "liberated" in addition to the "e" for "ecological". I suspect that they will soon demand that the animals get a last supper after their own wish before their execution - like American death row prisoners - so that we can claim that our animal rights standards are now on the level of American human rights? Nevertheless, to see the concept of the welfare state gradually being expanded to include animal welfare is indeed interesting. When I recently flew into Hendrix College in Arkansas I was astonished to see all these thousands of chicken farms from the air. Most of ours at this point probably look the same (who knows?), but - as things are going now - don't be too surprised if you one day see a huge international movement (headed by Amnesty International and Brigitte Bardot) demanding that all these prisoners in the American Gulag system of chicken farms be set free! (If so, don't forget to point out that Brigitte Bardot simultaneously is fighting to throw the Muslims out of France!) In any case, the E.U. is already at war with America because you pump your meat with hormones giving it more competitive weight than ours! Not to speak of our present banana war with America which even here is dividing the right and the left. 

One interesting side effect of the growing meat awareness is how it interrelates with the concern for human welfare. Now when the Chinese are industrializing rapidly and develop such a fast growing appetite for meat that the world grain reserves this year came down to zero, we all know that we can't eat meat too much longer. So people are already switching fast from beef to pork to chicken (since birds consume only 10% of the grain a cow eats pr. pound of meat). You always had turkey in America, but this is now being introduced over here in big scale for all those who feel guilty about emptying the world grain resources. Every day I go to the supermarket I see more and more turkey and chicken and less and less beef and pork. I don't know if you have seen the same phenomenon in the US, but you might as well start changing since by year 2020 all studies indicate we will have to do it anyway. (Personally I don't understand why people don't give up meat eating all together with all the environmental damage it causes. Cooking for my vegetarian wife made me chance. I was too lazy to cook two meals every day!) 

What is most astonishing about the new ecological awareness is to see how people are willing to foot the bill. One case in point is our current debate in Denmark (and throughout the EU) not about IF we should raise gas prices, but HOW high they should go! Right now our gas price in Denmark is one of the lowest in Europe: 4 dollars per gallon. But now the consumers (or at least more and more of them) are demanding that we get a "realistic" ecological price - the one in which all factors are included, such as road wear, hospitalization (which is paid over the taxes), carbon-dioxide pollution of the cities, break down of the ozone layer etc. Scientists have figured out that to be "ecological" the gas price has to be $9.30 per gallon. Since the government wants to meet the EU goal of stabilizing the carbon-dioxide level it wants to meet these consumer demands, but it can't figure out how those in remote country areas without alternative transportation shall be compensated etc. 

Here it is interesting to see the opposite of American trends: that even though we are alike in demanding our God given right to race our own car, our right to selfishness etc, at election time the voters over here nevertheless vote against their own narrow self interests and for higher taxes and prices when it comes to issues of general human welfare interest. 

Other ways of cutting energy use are also discussed, such as having toll booths at all entrances to the cities. Last week the city of Copenhagen voted to set up electronic toll booths (which doesn't stop the flow of traffic) and take $8 from cars driving into the city in order to force more drivers to use public transportation. In Norway they have long had such policies. Don't ever try to bring your car to Oslo. Whenever I have to do it (because of my job), I park the car and walk EVERYWHERE. Oslo is a nightmare vision of former Communist Berlin-type walls coming down over a city with ecological concrete walls blocking virtually every street you try to drive into (even after you have paid your initial entrance fee of $8). They have done everything to make it impossible to drive through this labyrinth, so only if you have lived in a neighborhood since childhood will you have a chance of finding your own home in a car. 

Again the voters have voted for all this as well as for the highest gas prices in Europe - and remember that this is happening in a country which is one of the leading oil exporters in the world. The country is making so much money that they have no idea how to use it - and as a result have decided to put all the billions and billions of surplus aside not to be used until the country runs out of oil in perhaps a hundred years. They could afford to let every Norwegian have free gas for hundreds of years (such as you basically have it in America with a price of 1$ per gallon). Instead they vote for the most progressive ecological prime minister in the world, Gro Brundtland, who constantly promises them higher and higher ecological taxes and more driving problems! She has been re-elected so many times that Norwegian children are now frequently heard asking: "Mom, can a man also become a prime minister or president?" 

A good illustration of how much we actually are voting to pay for the environment I got when the Danish government sent me to Thailand in April last year. I never find time to read boring government reports or do the necessary home work, but usually just go - vagabond style. So I thought that I was going out to do the same anti-poverty work I had been involved in in Nepal, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Africa. Therefore I got a shock when I arrived in this filthy rich country. "Why the hell are you sending me out here in this modern concrete hell with mobile phones and condoms in every pocket?" I telefaxed home. 

But out in the mountains I found out that I was there to help in the effort to save the rain forests - and that the Danish government is spending 0.5% of our GNP to save the rain forest in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. These 3 rich countries could easily afford to do it themselves, but they don't - so somebody has to do it before it is too late. The reason I reacted so negatively was that I thought the money was coming from the funds we spend on development aid to real poverty stricken countries. Now I learned that these 0.5% comes on top of the 1% we already spend on foreign aid. To give you an idea how much that is, remember that America only spends one seventh of that in foreign aid, namely 0.15% (which is further being reduced now by the republicans)! 

The additional environmental aid was pledged at the Rio conference along with every other country in the world. Except for one! Only the USA stood completely alone (and earned the wrath of all the rest of the world) by not pledging a DIME to the environment! I know that all of you (whom I send this to) will remember that disgraceful moment in American history, but it still serves as a good illustration of how Americans don't want to pay for the environment. And without the Americans we simply can't accomplish this huge historical task. 

On the personal level my job was mainly to make educational material about how we go about saving the rain forest by giving the hill side tribes help in sustainable farming so they can give up the burn and slash farming. How it broke my heart to see these enormous teak trees stand in flames in gigantic forest fires! At one point I almost lost my life when the wind suddenly changed and sent the towering flames my way. Unable to run on the steep hill sides I became totally engulfed in flames. And if I had tried to run, I would have run right into the arms of the bloody Burmese army. It was right then dealing a crushing blow to the Karen guerrillas whose colorful, but slain troops poured into the area. (Right as I write these lines they have arrested the Danish consular and hundreds of dissidents and I am glad to see Clinton now taking a strong stand here). For a moment I was caught between these two hells when the wind a little later again turned and saved me. 

But such a hellish dilemma we might all end up in if we don't start "paying" for the environment. "Buying it up" - as the Land Conservation Agency does in America or as we for years have done in Denmark with the rain forest - is not enough. One of the most popular gifts to give for Christmas here is ownership to a few square miles of the world's lungs. Every other Danish home I visit now owns part of the rain forest somewhere;  my own son and my father each owns a huge chunk of the forest in Costa Rica. But "stealing" the rain forest away from the local starving peasants is not enough, we increasingly realize. Just as with poor people in our own countries, these peasants must have a decent sustainable life in order not to be destructive. 

In Bolivia I have for the last 5 years worked for the Danish government in the area where Che Guevarra fought in vain to get the peasants to join his red revolution. Therefore it is such a wonderful experience to see the eagerness with which these peasants, who still remember Che, now join our green revolution. The area is bigger than all of Denmark which provides the money, but all the work of building terraces, making irrigation and stopping the soil erosion through re- forestation has to be done by themselves. The importance of all this you see when you fly over the area and see how "our" side is totally green, while every tree has been cut and burned on the Brazilian side of the border. The "red" revolution in a sense succeeded in Brazil with its sad barren red dessert soil as far as the eye can see! 

The consumers in Europe are also helping in this effort in Latin America. Personally I don't buy ecological coffee (since I after my stay with Nicaraguan peasants chose the Nicaraguan coffee on our shelves which is bought directly from the coffee farmers at higher prices). But ecological coffee takes up more and more space now in our supermarkets - and for good reasons since coffee production in terms of water use and waste is doing more to pollute Latin Americas rivers than perhaps anything else. With ecological coffee growing combined with the revolutionary new coffee peeling machine - the becolsub module (which cuts out the wasteful fermenting process and thus has the same significance for ecology as the cotton gin had for slavery) - we can now again eye some hope for the rivers and our oceans. (1997: I was slow to change, but I too now drink entirely ecological coffee.) 

Another big step was started in Denmark (and gradually also in other EU countries) this year, when we decided to change our whole progressive class-oriented tax system into an ecological tax system called Green Taxes. The net tax revenue will stay neutral, but where we before were taxed progressively higher according to income, we will now be taxed according to how much we consume (even though this is not so fair for the poor who as a result of the old system became middle class). 

From now on we will pay taxes on how much gas, electricity and water we consume. To find tax loop holes now means to find a dripping water outlet and fix it etc. In the news we are daily being informed about the latest research on such tax loop holes. A couple of days ago the evening news told us that the average Danish family can save around $200 a year in taxes by not using all the remote controls to TV's, videos etc. In other words: the little red lights on all these gadgets will from now on be our Big Brother constantly staring at us and telling us: "You are enemies of the revolution!"  ......until we change our lazy wasteful push bottom patterns. 

But day by day we are also learning what we are gaining by giving up our former extravagant life style. Yesterday all the papers had huge front page stories about a foreign visitor coming to Denmark - given far more editorial space than they would have given a Mandela, a Clinton or a Yeltsin. For this was a dignitary far more welcome - a stork which must have been photographed more than any other stork in history. In the 30s we used to have 12.000 storks in Denmark, but as we became richer and richer our highly effective industrial farming polluted our waters so we ended up with only 10 storks left for the last two decades. And this was the first NEW stork which now came back! Such moving stories gives everybody the hope that we can indeed win the ecological battle - and that it is worth paying a huge, huge price for it every time we go to the grocery store or the gas station! 

So, I started out writing this as a story about my joys of shopping - the joys of watching the small victories in this up- hill battle on our grocery shelves - for me, a passive and late coming participant, but now more and more an active "revolutionary." 
Since I have noticed - and my Norwegian traveler whom I brought with me on my last tour in America noticed the same - the absence of such a movement in American supermarkets I thought I would tell you a bit about what is being done on this side of our polluted divide. You might have started some of the same processes in more P.C. aware areas - such as Berkeley, Ann Arbor or Madison - but for the most part I have not seen much of an ecological movement in America. I think perhaps because so few Americans have even seen the oceans or a fishing boat and since there is still so much unspoiled land left in America. Yet your detrimental effect on the environment is even greater than the European as long as you use twice as much energy to produce the same amount of goods. So if you have not heard about the revolutionary battles now taking place over here I hope that I have given you some inspiration about how to go about creating a similar consumer movement in America. 

You have had great movements in the past, but mostly they were about attacking some scape goats somewhere else, such as the "Don't eat lettuce" campaign under Nixon, the EXXON scandal in Alaska etc. As I try to point out again and again in the new show Am. Pictures: "the real enemy is within." This is why this is such a quiet revolution now taking place in Europe with hardly any finger pointing; everybody has realized that the solution lies within themselves and they TRY (at least try!) to change accordingly. 

I hope you will not see this letter as too much pointing fingers towards the RELATIVE passivity of Americans (for this was my own passivity until recently), because we need your help in this international effort. So if you personally didn't have much awareness about this POSITIVE development (naturally we have all heard the negative horror stories of greenhouse effect, ozone holes, dying oceans etc), I hope you will help spread these ideas. In that case you may want to plant these ideas in local school papers etc. So feel free to re-write everything you find of use in this letter into a more proper English. 

Even though I don't write good English, remember that I am an American - up to half of the year! So I wrote this very much for myself - to try to integrate my two split national personalities - the confusion from moving back and forth between two completely different thought systems. I know how quick I fall into American lifestyle and thinking when e.g. it is cheaper for me to drive for two days from NY to Miami in my big gas guzzling American car than it is to go on the three hour drive to visit my father in Denmark in my much smaller European car. In such a wasteful environment I feel how quickly my own personality changes and how I end up compensating for the sense of powerlessness (since my green card doesn't give me a right to vote there) and alienation through escapist, pointless and consumptive driving. Also I know the powerlessness you feel in places like L.A. where you have now - I presume - given up on even the limited goal of having 2% of the car fleet run on alternative forms of energy...... 

Well, last night I went to a concert with Philip Glass, who played here in Copenhagen, and as you can hear on the tone in this letter, his music from Koyannisqatsi has continued all day in my head. The word (as you might remember from seeing the movie) is Hopi for "Life out of balance" so it inspired me to write about how we can get life a little bit into balance again. We all need such artistic inspiration, but since it is always unbearable to listen to such save-the-earth-holy-type- of-preaching from less artistic people - such as me - I better finish off in a bit lighter and more humorous tone. Mog sent me an e-mail the other day, which seems to indicate that you are making some progress in the ecological awareness - at least in California: 

"In February, a government agency in Modesto, Calif., announced it would take action against the Imperial Wizard of the California [Ku Klux] Klan, Bill Albers, for a February 10 cross-burning. The agency is the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which plans a civil lawsuit because the diesel-soaked cross-burning violates local air pollution laws. [San Francisco Chronicle, Feb 96]" 

So since Danish capitalists seems to have smelled which way the smog will be blowing in the next century I will suggest to them that there are now money to be made on exports of ecologically grown, pollution-free crosses to America. 

Actually, I (as usual) don't understand the petty stuff they talk about in the Chronicle. For you should see the black smoke that rises over Copenhagen every time they burn down a McDonald restaurant here during our frequent riots (the young eco-activists see McDonald as THE VERY SYMBOL of rain forest and environmental destruction, so they - wrongly! - feel that a little burn and slash pollution here is justified!) Inconsistent, yes, but as I said: who can be consistent in this difficult revolution - and who can succeed entirely in changing their own selves without sometimes venting their rage on outside symbols? This is such a difficult struggle - we need your help......over there! 

With ecological love 
Jacob 

ps. I promise next time to buy ecological raisins to help save YOUR land (not to speak of the health of your farm workers! I forgot that in this case it is also a health issue.) 
Also remember that this is written fast - as an email; I have made no research. All figures I use are as I remember them from our current debate in Danish newspapers and TV News. Therefore I mostly use Danish examples, but would like to point out that a similar debate and development is taking place in other European countries. 

To e-mail an edited  version of this article back to me: 

Thanks, Jacob Holdt 

Back to other writings by Jacob Holdt 

Back to Jacob Holdt's homepage 

American Pictures 
 

 


 Copyright 2003
AMERICAN PICTURES
 

Back to Jacob Holdt's articles