Hoy No Circula.

Mexico City is living a serious environmental crisis. It has been living a serious environmental crisis for years, but some wrong political decisions and “unfavorable” climatic conditions have turned it into a crisis that no one can pretend anymore is not happening.

In mid-March, this city of 8 million inhabitants and supposedly 5 million cars driving on its streets each day, had its first environmental alert in 14 years. Ozone levels went up to 200 parts on the local Imeca scale – a situation when people are recommended to abstain from any physical exercise outside, to stay inside, and close all windows, etc. Kids did not have sports lessons in school during that week (hardly any school here has a gymnasium), and football or baseball games were cancelled.

Because of that experience and of air quality predictions for the upcoming weeks and months of typical Mexico City spring weather – intense sunshine, high temperatures and no rain at all – the Environmental Commission of the Megalopolis, short CAMe, decided last week that from today onwards, 20 percent of the whole car park of this huge metropolitan area should stay off the streets. Each weekday, a different kind of license plate end number cannot circulate; or a different color of license plate sticker (they have five colors here: yellow, pink, red, green and blue). It is a new-old variant of the “Hoy No Circula”-program that goes back to the late 1980s when air pollution in Mexico City was even much worse.

Today again, authorities had to declare environmental alert; again, ozone levels rose to a bit above 150 parts, the threshold that triggers the alert, phase I. So what does CAMe decide? They double the number of cars that cannot circulate tomorrow, grounding then altogether 40 percent of registered private vehicles.

40 percent of cars not circulating – that means, that the people who usually use these 2 million cars to drive to work, to bring their kids to school, or buy food at the supermarket have to use alternative means. There is public transport in Mexico City – which already positively distinguishes it from some other North American cities – but at rush hour, people squeeze like sardines in a can in metro trains and metro busses, and the tens of thousands of mini-busses, the “peseros”, are jam-packed. The system has not held up with the crazy growth of this huge metropolitan area that houses 28 million people. And being able to afford one’s own car, to drive a car, is still something of status thing here; lots of upper-middle class people would not use the metro, as they consider it for “poor people”.

There have been a lot of wrong political decisions in the past; mainly the decisions that have not been taken. Such as the severely delayed approval of a heavy-transport regulation: Norm44 would cut particle pollution responsible for black carbon by 98 percent. One sees these trucks all the time – huge engines, the length of three or four cars, and thick, black exhaust coming out when they start and accelerate. The same applies to city garbage trucks, and thousands of mini-busses. Residents here argue, rightly so, that those vehicles should be as strictly regulated as private cars. Politicians shy away from it as they fear the economic repercussions.

What is most striking to me, personally, is that I am experiencing here what a lot of developing country cities are experiencing today or will experience tomorrow. Air quality in Mexico City is actually not as bad, if you compare it to Delhi, Karachi or Dakar. But it is bad enough for my kids not being able to play sports outside, or me going for a run in the park. I live in this mega-urban place – lots of concrete, lots of asphalt, hardly any green areas left – with more and more cars each year, and the air I am breathing in and out is actually damaging to my health. This is what development looks like – first there are the cars, the streets, the factories, supermarkets and shopping centers, and then we think about the environment. It was like this in Europe 200 years ago, and it is like this in Mexico, South Africa and China now. The problem is just that, at least in Mexico City, we are far too many people. And this density of people relates in a whole range of environmental problems.

Hopefully, this current crisis makes people here to change their life styles to a more sustainable manner, and politicians to take better decisions.

Our Common Future

Today, we were having a recycling call at the school of my sons. I am parent representative of the class of my oldest boy, and his generation was in charge of assisting the parent association (PA) with their work. The PA does those calls to generate funds for their activities – they sell the material to a recycling company. We have had two events where we asked families to bring paper and aluminum cans. This time, we collected electronic trash – computers, cell phone, TVs, stereos, all the things that do not work or that people do not need anymore. And I was first impressed and then shocked by the amount we received.

Impressed because I saw quite some mums and dads that had taken the time and effort to check out their basements and attics to get all their tech junk together and bring it to school from 7am in the morning.

Shocked because I opened several plastic bags that had four, five cell phones in them; or three digital cameras in one lot. One dad brought four laptops that caught the eye of several of the security guys helping us because they looked still quite neat. We piled up hundreds of chargers, cables, modems; dozens of DVD players. I was just wondering how people can have so much stuff; how they can buy so many things. Mexico is still a developing country, but the families of the so-called middle class for sure spend lots of money on consumer electronics.

I was thinking about Gro Harlem Brundtland and the definition of sustainability that she and other environmental thinkers formulated more than 25 years ago: Sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The “needs” mentioned in the Brundtland report, aka “Our Common Future”, referred to the “essential needs of the world’s poorest people”. At least 50 percent of the goods we collected this morning, I would say, were not fulfilling that criteria.

I don’t want to propagate quasi stone age life – that we all just have a roof over our heads, enough to eat, clothes to cover our bodies, and health care and education. I have a smart phone, I use a computer, I like to watch TV. I know that there is technological progress – we saw things there this morning that gave us the sense that we were using a time machine: huge computer monitors, bulky CPUs, fax machines, a TV more than half a meter deep, VHS players.

But does it always have to be the latest iPhone? My youngest son knows when the newest version of Steve Jobs’ favorite telecom device is launched. He would love to have one. A lighter laptop? A smaller dock-in station? An even bigger flat-screen? A more powerful car? We all have to ask ourselves if we are not compromising the ability of our children and grand-children to meet their own needs by consuming the way we do.

Recycling is good – a lot of the bits and pieces of the goods that we collected this morning will find their way into new cool gadgets. Production nowadays is much more resource efficient than it was in 1987 when Brundtland was asked by the then UN Secretary-General to lay the intellectual groundwork for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro five years later. But nearly all experts agree that there will be no sustainability without us really rethinking and changing our consumption habits. It is a truth the business community usually does not like to hear, but some companies have shown that it also can be an opportunity.