Istanbul, energy transitions, and Thessaloniki

16 students from 7 different countries together for 7 days, national energy policies in the era of resource depletion, and a city that crosses two continents. All this built around a single conference: energy efficiency through the eyes of the younger generation, department of Energy Systems Engineering, Yalova University. This post is about the trip – my impressions of Turkey, discussions of energy policy, and finally Thessaloniki.

First-flying. I’ve tried to keep a no-fly policy since I became aware of the scientific consensus on climate change and oil depletion – burning our amazing fossil resources to send an ephemeral metal tube through the sky seems morally unjustifiable. I hate the feeling of flagrantly burning a resource that could be useful to future generations of unborn children. And I hated the experience. Cooped up in a horrible Sleazy Jet bombing precariously in the sky and being force-fed Sleazy snacks the whole time is not nice. Hypocritical I know, but I’m even more convinced now than before that flying is no longer an appropriate behaviour for responsible citizens.

Impressions of Turkey

Arriving in Istanbul, the traffic was hectic. We ground to a halt every so often and spent a good deal of time drifting between lanes with undertaking, beeping, and flouting of traffic signals common practice. The sheer size of the place took my breath, and with a population of 13 million (the 5th biggest city in the world), it is little surprise that it seemed crowded.

A couple of nights in Istanbul was enough for me, as we hit-up the usual tourist locations such as the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar. Although official figures say over 99% of Turkish citizens are Muslim, independent research referenced in wikipedia suggests that the true figure is 97-98%. My own observations concur with this lower rate (it was stated hat people were less religious in the West of Turkey), and I suspect that, like Christianity in much of Europe, the influence of Islam over Istanbul and Yalova is becoming more cultural than religious, especially for the young people we were with on a daily basis.

But, if I am right in saying this transition away from adherence to religious dogma is taking place, the shift is at an early stage and facing a potent backlash such as the repealing of the ban on religious headgear in Turkish Universities. I was astonished at how easily ubiquitous symbols of individualistic capitalism (e.g. Mercs, MacDonalds and night clubs) sat next to traditional symbols of Islamic power (Mosques, prayer mats, and veils). Such clashes are illustrated below.

Islamic Ablution in the Grand Bazaar, a large tourist attraction in European Istanbul.

The car park outside the prestigious Blue Mosque was packed by luxury cars. Presumably their owners simultaneously advocate the values of free market capitalism and Islam.

On the other side of the Marmara Sea lies Yalova, where we spent most of the trip. This place, with its spanking new University, beach-side bars and booming commercial streets seemed even more European to me. Especially talking to the young people we met, it seemed like a place in transition, with people questioning the extent of literal interpretations of the Qur’an such as creationism, abstinence, and taxing prayer duties. I’m not sure if this sense of cultural transition can be found in other parts of Turkey, although I was told that it is much different in the eastern states. In my more cynical moments I would say that capitalism is simply replacing Islam as the dominant ideology in parts of Turkey, with no objective way of telling which is more enslaving. However, the people I met illustrated that the situation is more complicated than this: Turkish society is under transition, and the effects of the swirling torrents of Islam, expanding markets, internet, and Western media (displayed on energy major street) are yet to be seen.

Energy transitions and energy policy

In Western European and American progressive media there seems to be  a pretty widespread understanding of an energy transition as a necessary step to take us away from an unsustainable energy system – one that will collapse – to a sustainable one – one that won’t. In Turkey, it was apparent that the priority was on getting more power first in order to drive economic development. The whole debate about growth – it’s negative social and environmental effects and alternatives – did not appear to be present and the overwhelming assumption seemed to be that growth is good.

This was clear from Turkey’s past energy policy, which favoured acquiring cheap energy over anything else. However, Taner Yıldız, Turkish energy minister, seems to have a pretty strong sense of transition and global cooperation, according to this article.

The most shocking part of the trip was visiting Aksa’s acrylic textile factory in Yalova. There the manager told us of the power stations they had installed there and it was scary. The place had 70 MW installed which was enough to power the whole city. Even worse, they planned to add 100 MW through a coal-fired power station which had received local opposition. When the director announced this we just sat there silently – if it was in the UK someone would have heckled but I felt strangely helpless – awed by the power structure set up by such a huge enterprise. Or perhaps I was thinking ‘well they need to develop too’, even though I knew very little benefit would go to Turkish people, except for already rich stock-holders.

That was a wake-up call, and made me think of the phrase ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” in relation to energy: it’s OK for ‘good men’ to sit around creating sustainable alternatives, but this will be for nothing if they stand by and allow the fossil fuel corporations to continue their great climate experiment even though signs say it may be headed for catastrophe.

Thessaloniki

The heaviness of that experience was overcome somewhat with the trip to Thessaloniki by bus. Unlike the horrible flight this was well-fun, with each seat having its own media pod, smooth riding and plenty of space. Is it really beyond our wit to create decent coach systems as a low-energy long distance alternative to cars and planes? I asked as we sped Northwest. Unfortunately Thessaloniki’s transport system was not so utopian, with cycle paths and cars invading pavements all over. It was great to be the guest of Orfeas and Sofia during this part of the trip and they showed me an amazing time with Rakomolo, Greek food, and dancing.

The whole trip opened my eyes to travelling again and made me realise that global problems need global solutions.

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