By Kristín Vala  Ragnarsdóttir

November 21, 2019

Vala is a WEAll Ambassador, member of the WEAll Global Council and leader of WEAll Iceland. She is Professor of Sustainability Science at the University of Iceland.

I often tell people about my epiphany that I had when I talked to the late Richard St George in Bristol (UK) in the year 2000.  He was then the Director of the Schumacher Society which held „the“ environmental gathering in the UK – every year – under the title: Schumacher Lectures. I was a Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol (and had never heard about the Schumacher Society despite having lived in the city for more than 10 years).  We discovered during our conversation at my neighbour’s birthday party that we were both working on environmental issues.  I was working at the atomic scale – using Synchotron radiation at the Daresbury Laboratory near Liverpool to decipher the structure and coordination of metals and pollutants in water and on mineral surfaces.  Richard was working on finding ways to make the world sustainable.  He was thinking about the big picture.  I had lost the view of the big picture.

I had a shock once I learned how unsustainable our life on planet Earth was (and still is).  First I did not know what to do.  I spent a summer staring at my computer and did not know how to proceed.  But since being depressed is not my nature, I decided to figure out how an Earth scientist could contribute toward sustainability.  I moved up 15 orders of magnitude and sustainability has been at the centre of my research, teaching and operations ever since.

One of the things I decided I had to do was to minimise my own impact on the world.  I had my old car scrapped and I cycled, walked or used public transportation. When going to Europe I took the train.  I kitted out a loft for myself in an old paint factory with under floor heating, solar water heating, double glazing, sheep wool insulation, linseed oil paint…  I bought local and organic produce, stopped for the most part giving gifts, but instead gave Oxfam „gifts“ for the developing world, ranging from giving access to clean water, sanitation, vegetable gardens, goats etc.  If I bought anything for my extended family it was (and still is) a book on environmental issues.  And for whatever CO2 emissions I was responsible, I offset with supporting tree planting.

At the end of 2008 I moved to Iceland, my country of origin.  It was strange to move straight into the economic collapse in Iceland – where the ethical values I was raised with seemed to have vanished.  First I lived with my parents, then got myself a car and a flat.  Living in the same environmentally friendly way as in the UK was difficult.  Most produce is imported.  Going to conferences and workshop meant flying. Taking the ferry is possible, but takes a long time via Seydisfjördur (East Iceland), the Faroe Islands and Jytland in Denmark.  From there you need to take a train.  Seydisfjördur is 800 km from Reykjavik where I live and work.  Then the same distance back.

So I had to change my way of operating.  From Iceland I have travelled according the following principles since 2009:

  1. Will my presence at the summit/conference/workshop/symposium contribute toward the world becoming more sustainable? and/or
  2. Will l learn something that can help me support the world becoming more sustainable?

For my travel I still offset my emissions.  Not perfect, but better than doing nothing.

Move forward ten years and I recently had another epiphany. It is not enough to only consider sustainability issues, it is also necessary to consider gender balance issues. So from now on my traveling will be bound by a third principle:

  1. Have the organisers of the summit/conference/workshop/symposium provided a gender balanced environment for presentations/panels (and more broad balance of gender identifications, where appropriate)?

This third principle came to me after I attended an international summit recently, where we were either presented with „manels“ (men only panels) or panels with one token woman.  I had gone a long way from Iceland because I had hoped that the summit would focus on the voices of people from the global south, and women.  That was not the case.  All of the presenters were men. Only one African woman was given a voice on a panel.

When it dawned on me what was happening, at first I was furious, then sad, then I had the epiphany to make this third principle at the core of decisions of whether I will travel anywhere.

When I discussed this with two friends today, one suggested that I write a blog (thanks!) and another proposed a fourth principle:

  1. Will the summit/conference/workshop/symposium nourish my soul?

She also suggested this should be principle 1.  I agree (also thanks)!