“Everybody Should do Their Share” – The Long Road to Sustainability in Turkey

“Everybody Should do Their Share” – The Long Road to Sustainability in Turkey

  • knowtheflow: Prof. Dr. Inci Gökmen, you offer a course named “Sustainable Living and Green Chemistry” at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara.
    Prof. Dr. Inci Gökmen
    : Yes, I just started, this semester.
  • Does it provoke a positive response?
    Yes, I think so. First, I started with a discussion on the “limits to growth”. I guess everybody knows that there are limits in this world. We watched the movie “The Story of Stuff” with my students in class and I tried to get some feedback from them. The students said “yeah, the movie is presenting all the problems, but it is not proposing any solutions”. That was the main criticism. There were mixed reactions from the students.
  • Where do your students come from, what fields of study?
    I have 25 students, mostly chemistry students, some from chemistry education, and one from biology.
  • And what about the missing solutions?
    Within sustainability, the way we tend to think of it, the social aspect is not emphasized enough. In the studies I conducted together with my husband, Prof. Dr. Ali Gökmen [Guneskoy Kooperatif], we found that difficulties involving social issues are causing most of the problems in the cooperative. If you belong to a community, then you fight. It is the leadership, it is the conflicts in decision making, that are causing problems. So we are doing a lot of studies in the area of the social aspects of sustainability.

Fourth Dimension of Sustainability: World View

  • That means that, concerning the classic triangle of sustainability (economic, ecological and social sustainability), you would call the social aspect the most important one?
    Yes, the social aspect is really important. We are active members of an organization called Global Ecovillage Network-Europe [gen.ecovillage.org]. According to Gaia Education, which we learned through GEN, apart from the social aspect, there is actually a forth aspect, called “world view”.
  • World view, as a fourth dimension of sustainability, deals with the perception of the world?
    It is broader. Some say it is a cultural issue, some talk about the spiritual aspect with which you would usually not be familiar or might avoid. But in a lot of ecovillages we have visited, the strong thing is their spirituality. I also think so; it is important to bring people together, to keep them together.
  • You work as a university professor and you live in a regular city home in Ankara. What is your role in the ecovillage network?
    We are working in the above mentioned cooperative called Günesköy (it means sun village [see www.guneskoy.org.tr]). Günesköy is a member of GEN-Europe and I was a council member in GEN-Europe for two terms. Günesköy has 10 members and it owns 7.5 Hectares of land located about 65 kilometers from Ankara, Turkey’s capital. We have been practicing certified organic farming and community supported agriculture for 6 years now. That means we grow vegetables without pesticides and we don’t use artificial fertilizers. Günesköy cooperates with local farmers to promote the idea of organic agriculture.
    Together with two universities, we organized three workshops covering the social and the ecological aspects of sustainability. Nearly 40 people attended each of the workshops. It is amazing – when you organize such an activity, you don’t realize how far it will go. It is making us very happy, for example, that a group which joined one of these workshops later organized a film festival. Recently they have organized a second one in Istanbul – a three day film festival on sustainability [see Sustainable Living Film Festival Istanbul 2011].
    Together with with my husband, Prof. Dr. Ali Gökmen, we have translated the film “The Turning Point“. It is about life in Findhorn, which is an ecovillage in Scotland and actually one of the older and more well established ecovillages. They do a lot of educational activities on sustainability. I haven’t been there, but I follow what they’re doing.

Eco-Bazaars and Clean Production on the Rise, LCAs Not Yet

  • Being a chemist, and especially one who is active in promoting organic agriculture, I assume that you are aware of the multiple ways in which the environment can be affected by the production, use and disposal of consumer products.
  • Are Turkish consumers also aware of that?
    It’s hard to tell if the general public has such a perception. But at least, there is a small proportion of people who are aware. I guess, the number is still very small, but I cannot say exactly what the percentage might be now.
  • Do you think it is rising?
    I think so, but I wish it would increase sooner. In Istanbul there are 10 ecological bazaars, and in Ankara there are 2.
  • For which brands do companies fulfill their responsibility to provide environmental information on their products?
    The packaging industry is careful; they do not forget telling the consumer that their products are recyclable. However, this is questionable, because actually it may not be economically feasible to recycle many types of packages, even if the word “recyclable” is printed on them. But at least it raises a certain awareness. I know there are a few companies that practice clean production. There is an Environmental Engineering Department at METU whose chairman is very active in the field of clean production and is involved in some projects to help companies introduce clean production schemes.

“Environmental awareness is increasing”

  • Are there branches in which clean production is more wide spread?
    I don’t know whether it is wide spread, but I know some companies use clean production techniques. I know some companies from the food industry, and some home appliance manufacturers have developed clean production techniques for their processes.
  • Are there companies in Turkey conducting Life Cycle Assessments?
    I haven’t heard of one. But there is pressure on the plastics producers. Until 2012, for four years, I was supervising a radio program called “Waste is Treasure”. During this program, I saw that awareness is increasing. There are some magazines being published on recycling, there is some upcycling artwork in order to use the waste. But the rate of recycling is not so large yet. And Turkey doesn’t know much about composting, either.
    Another area discussed on the radio program concerned the waste collectors. They are collecting the valuable packaging materials and all the metals and plastics and then separating and selling them. In recent years a fight has been developing between the municipalities and these street collectors. The municipality no longer wants these people. But there are quite a number of them in big cities who still make their livings from waste collection. So this is one area that should be resolved in a peaceful manner. They are publishing a regular magazine called KATIK: “atik” means waste, but a katik is something you eat along with bread. In Ankara there are at least 2000 people living with the money they earn from waste.

“No big effort for Carbon Footprinting in Turkey”

  • The concept of Carbon Footprinting is constantly gaining in popularity. It is most well-known in regard to personal mobility and lifestyle. However, in order to fight global warming, it is also vital that organizations and companies calculate carbon footprints. Are efforts being made to label products in Turkey?
    Not a serious effort that I know of. I’m sure there are companies here and there who do it, but I cannot see a big effort yet.
  • There is ineffective public waste management in Turkey. In addition the country is facing environmental problems concerning its gold mining activities. As a consequence, you boycott gold jewelery and ask others to follow suit. Adding to these two issues, private transport has skyrocketed in the course of the last ten years and urban public transport, at least in Ankara, is far from getting on the political agenda. Apart from the problems we have discussed, where do you see the most room for improvement?
    Another issue is energy. Turkey is getting its energy either from hydro power or from coal. There are plans to set up new nuclear power plants in the south of the country, ignoring the events in Chernobyl and Fukushima. However, natural gas use is on the rise and has increased enormously during the last 10-15 years. We speak mostly about electrical energy generation.
    For a long time, we have known that there are significant losses through the distribution of electricity. The average loss is much greater than it is in Europe. The government hasn’t done much to improve that. If these losses were reduced, we would not need all this extra energy. Another area is, of course, efficiency improvement. I don’t see much happening in improvement of efficiency, either. Yet, increasing the power supply, in whatever form, will not help! Unless you resolve this, you will waste the portion of the energy you have added.

“Everybody should do their share in every possible way”

  • Where would be a good place to start? In your opinion, who should be responsible for bringing efficiency measures into practice?
    Well, the amount of energy consumed by the different sectors is very well known. Like how much is used in homes, how much for street lighting, how much by industry. So I suggest everybody should do their share. Whoever improves their efficiency and saves energy, will pay less for energy. It will be to their benefit! In homes, we have a lot of electrical appliances. For example refrigerators are running for 24 hours a day. A fridge is the biggest consumer, but unfortunately, when people buy it, they don’t care how much electricity it will consume. However, we shouldn’t forget that it’s a holistic thing. Everybody should do their share in every possible way.
  • Apart from Günesköy, which can serve as an excellent example for considerable environmental improvement, do you have other examples in mind?
    There is a middle school in our university with a very conscious teacher who organized a project where students proposed installing a card system for room lighting, just like in hotels. Before starting the project they counted all the lamps in the school and realized that there were something like 500 lamps – a huge number! Then the school changed all the light switches in the classrooms. For each classroom, a different student is responsible each day to manage the card. Then he puts the card in when there is class and takes it out during the breaks in order to completely shut off the energy supply when leaving the room empty. The students came to our radio program and I remember one of the students saying: “I am telling my parents to turn off the lights when they are not in the room, but they keep forgetting”. It is usually the other way around, the parents complain about the children, but in that case the children were complaining about their parents… So these students will be very alert on these issues as they grow up. So, whatever the direction, education is very important, at every level.

“A Much Simpler Life is Possible”

  • The passing of knowledge from one generation to another is important. You could try to ask people who live in the city to grow their own vegetables, but most would not be able to do it because they don’t have the knowledge. Although there are now thousands of things about vegetable growing on the internet and in books, when it comes to the real thing, it is the practice that counts. There are some critical things: when to plant, on what kind of soil, which seeds, irrigation, sun…
    There is this movement called “Transition Towns” or “Transition Movement” [www.transitionnetwork.org]. It started in Totnes, Ireland, but if you look at the world map now, you can see that it’s just everywhere. They are concentrating on two things. One of them is, of course, climate change and the other is the peak oil issue, two things that are related to each other: as you use more fuel, you will emit more carbon dioxide and the effect on global warming will increase. The Transition Town movement is helping people prepare for the days when petrol will be less or unavailable. People are coming together, trying to find out what to do for such days. It is increasing some sort of resilience among the people. They teach each other old things, how to manage life in a sustainable way without being scary for anyone. So it is possible to survive. And a much simpler life is possible in which you can still be happy. Rob Hopkins is the person who started the Transition Town movement. It gives me hope to see that just one person is able to start a good thing and that it is spreading!
  • Prof. Dr. Gökmen, thanks for the interview and all the best for sowing sustainability ideas in the dry Turkish soil!
    You are welcome.


missing-imageProf. Dr. Inci Gökmen is Chemistry Professor at the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara, Turkey. She lectures the course „Sustainable Living and Green Chemistry“ and stands behind the local organic cooperative Günesköy. Her workshops on sustainability and self-sufficiency bring the ideas of a sustainable lifestyle to Turkey.

 image by Moritz Bühner



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