A student comes to my office. He wants to know something about the biggest differences between the Old and New Worlds. He doesn’t get more explicit than that. He seems to expect critical comments. I ask him to sit down. Now he’s sitting where the professor usually sits. I’ve moved the furniture around. Why do you want to sit with your back to the window?
People tell me they no longer travel outside the United States because they don’t want to justify themselves for Trump and all the insanity that’s going on. Funny, I say, that’s something you know all too well as an Austrian. It’s really not much better over there, I say, the only difference being that Austria can do less damage. While the media is talking about the Mueller report and the lies of the president and his vassals, Robert de Niro says what many wish for: he’d like to see the president in an orange jumpsuit - handcuffed.
The people here are friendlier and more helpful, I say. Before I can add, even if it might seem superficial, the student asks if this friendliness isn’t shallow. At least that is what his European friends think. I for one prefer friendliness, even if it might be superficial, and good vibes a thousand times over profound grumpiness and a subdued tone. I love how easy it is to get into conversation with people, just like that, at the next table or on the street. In offices and administrations you get the feeling that people actually really want to help you.
Now I know, I tell the student. We dealt with the history of climate change and the struggle against it this semester. Not that it would be much better in Europe, but:
I produce more waste in one day in Ohio than in two weeks in Vienna. The food in the cafeteria is served in a plastic bowl with a plastic lid on it. It’s impossible to at least not take the plastic lid. Laws, hygiene. Knife, fork and spoon are made of plastic. The coffee comes in a paper cup, with a cardboard sleeve around it, so it doesn’t burn your fingers; only when I make a big enough fuss do I manage to avoid the plastic lid. The water comes in a plastic cup, which is closed with a plastic lid, and you geta plastic straw, which is covered inpaper. Everything ends up in the same landfill. Air conditioners run around the clock, but you can’t open the windows. Everyone drives a car, which is, I know, a structural problem, since there's no public transport. All the garbage in one day in one cafeteria at one medium sized university! In Rwanda, where plastic bags are banned, one would end up in jail. For, really, it is a crime.
Another student shares a story about Kroger on Facebook. The supermarket wants to do away with their free plastic bags, in which the staff at the counter stow away the groceries - in 2025. Much too late, I say. People have to adjust to the new culture slowly, I hear. No. It has to be said that this culture is wrong. It’s not a question of democracy: people were never asked in the first place if they wanted millions of free plastic bags. The biggest difference, I finally say, is that the Green New Deal of New Consensus and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets a plan into the public that addresses the root of the problem rather than relieving its symptoms. One that clearly identifies the connections between climate change, capitalism and poverty. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the most progressive idea comes from one of the — in this regard— most backward countries.