By Aileen - 06/02/2010
Initially, I didn't even want to know about the climate summit in Copenhagen in December. I felt that it was inevitably going to be so hopeless and futile that I didn't even want to watch, and discussions weeks ahead of time on various mailing lists about the Danish police being given special powers only suggested that too many idealistic and caring people were likely to get hurt. Nevertheless, since I have been following Battal since last October, when Battal set out from Istanbul to Copenhagen, following the same overland journey in reverse that Ruth and I had taken a month earlier, I couldn't help being drawn in. In the end, it was every bit as dreadful to watch as I had expected it to be. Enjoying the luxury of a family holiday in New York last week, I felt painfully reminded again of the hopelessly frustrating spectacle of the summit in Copenhagen. First of all, of course it felt irresponsible to book tickets online for four people to fly from Linz to New York. My husband needed to go to deliver an instrument, but our sons and I just went along for the ride, frivolously taking advantage of a special "off-season" offer from Lufthansa, since we are no longer tied to school holidays (when travel costs take a dramatic leap, because so many people have no choice about when they can travel). Of course we managed to talk ourselves into feeling justified in enjoying this luxury anyway, and we did enjoy it very much, even though the most enjoyable part – spending time alone with my sons – didn't really require a flight to New York for four people. Nevertheless, there was something else that seemed to constantly, oppressively remind me of the futility of the Copenhagen summit: the heaps of rubbish that we seemed to be continuously creating without wanting to. At some point, after an exhilarating visit to the Whitney Museum with my elder son, as we were walking through the streets of New York on our way back to our hotel, as though wandering through a film set, we agreed that we wanted to just sit down somewhere and take a break. Coffee seemed a good idea, but not so simple to implement. As a self-respecting ensemble of leftist European intellectuals, we obviously couldn't just walk into some shiny corporate chain place. We also wanted to be able to actually sit down, not just grab a cardboard cup with a plastic lid and keep running. Finally, my son spotted a place with rickety wooden tables and chairs surrounded by windows above street level with a funny, old-fashioned sign. That seemed promising, even though there turned out to be a large TV screen on one side and the inevitable noise of blaring pop music in the room. Yet even though I told the woman at the counter that we wanted to have our coffee and brownies there, in the end my son and I found ourselves sitting across from one another at a lovely old wooden table with a pile of rubbish between us: cardboard cups with plastic lids, plastic containers, plastic forks, a plethora of paper napkins that we didn't need ... In New York we had the impression that only very exclusive, unaffordably expensive places use "real" dishes, glasses and cutlery. Everything else is cardboard and plastic – and individually, dauntingly and elaborately packaged, even if only for a few minutes. Maybe it's different for people who actually live in New York and know where to go and separate everything left over for recycling, just as we do at home, but as tourists there seemed to be no way of avoiding creating excess rubbish. All my son and I wanted to do that afternoon was to sit down and talk over coffee and cake. I think that is a perfectly reasonable wish. People need to talk. Food is something to be shared. Yet if the result is an extraneous heap of rubbish, does that make these simple, human needs an unaffordable luxury? In the book Deep Search, Theo Röhle points out that the goal of Internet advertising is to turn communication needs into consumption needs. It's that simple, that obvious, but for me that statement seemed to perfectly succinctly explain the constant battles over "privacy" and data-mining. All the rubbish we created in New York led me to start wondering about possible analogies. If sitting down together to talk and share food are simple, basic human needs, is it possible that there are also ongoing attempts to turn these needs into consumption needs as well? How much profit might be extracted by exploiting these simple, basic needs? Could this have something to do with all the excess rubbish? Having grown up in a large family, I have always believed that eating is a communal activity (admittedly, since I have started noticing that my bad habit of forgetting to eat when I'm alone affects my physical and mental health, I'm working on assimilating the idea that companionship is not the only reason for eating), and I'm still convinced that the more people there are to share food, the less waste ends up being involved. For this reason, I have long been skeptical about architecture that divides us up into smaller and smaller units, each with a separate kitchen – an idea that has been taken up in interesting ways by various artists and artist groups, but unfortunately less by urban planners. Yet if "flexible" work schedules make it increasingly difficult for large groups of people to eat together, is there some kind of correlation between the decrease in communality and the increase in excess rubbish resulting from the activity of eating? The question bothers me. On the one hand, it seems too simplistic, but on the other hand I find myself imagining the enormous effort it would take to change what have become commonplace eating habits, and this seems to take me right back to the depressing futility of the Copenhagen summit. Changing the world one plastic sandwich box at a time? That hardly sounds promising.