With the growing number of “sustainable” products on the market, sustainability is misconceived as a value that can only be “bought” and lived out with a high balance bank book. While these corporations should get credit for being environmentally mindful and carrying out their social responsibility in a way that meet our comforts, mind you, this isn’t the only way to be sustainable. Truth be told. You don’t have to break the bank to help save the environment.
Responsible lifestyle changes and simple living can go a long way. Living in a foreign country does strange things to your mind. It makes you question why we do the things the way we do back home (for me, America), resulting in what is referred to as reverse culture shock upon returning to a place that once was so familiar.
I was asked during in an interview once, how my lifestyle reflects values of sustainability. I didn’t know how to answer because most of my sustainable living was enforced by the environment and systems in which I lived. Let me explain through a simple example. Trash.
During my time in South Korea, I almost took it for granted that we are required to separate trash—even fast food restaurants like (American) McDonalds there make you separate liquids (including ice), food trash, plastics and paper from basic landfill wastes. Why is this the norm? Because as a tiny landlocked country with limited land resources, South Korea has to live with the negative consequences of landfills. I remember in 2008-2009, when the San Francisco mayor proposed a mandate for constituents to separate food trash, a fellow citizen threatened to sue the City/County! (Let me explain the explanation point). Decomposition of organic material like food waste in landfills creates methane gas—which, as the most potent greenhouse gas, has up to 36 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Landfills are the third largest source of methane in the U.S. and there are lost opportunities to collect and utilize that methane for energy. (If you don’t believe in climate change, we will have to talk in a separate blog post.) In Seoul, we not only have to separate our food trash, we have to buy our own dedicated trash and food waste bags (appropriated by size) thus making us responsible—that is pay—for the quantity of excess food and waste we produce. *shrug. Does paying taxes for basic municipal services mean we have unlimited waste rights? If you ask me, it is not holding people responsible for the impacts landfills have, just because it may be “not in my backyard (NIMBYism)”? Which system makes more sense to you?
Living abroad and recognizing how much waste we produce, in contrast, as Americans is just one way I was shaken by the culture and societal differences. Another was our mindless consumption behavior. (I can say these things because I am American). Although China exceeded the U.S. in total carbon dioxide emissions about a decade ago, per capita the U.S. still emits almost three times that of China (2011). Looking at our energy consumption patterns, I am guilty of holding “energy entitlement” … until I saw the energy constraints of other countries.
Traveling through Asia, I noticed most households do not use clothes dryers. Why? Because the gas required to operate one is expensive and not all cities have gas pipelined to their homes. (Makes one wonder, once we point out that oil and gas leaks is in the top two sources of methane emissions in the U.S. and is enough to provide for the energy needs of about 5 million households, 2015). In China, the government controls the centralized heating of buildings (maybe not the most efficient, but it forces people to adjust to indoor temperatures rather than vice versa).
People don’t default to giving driving and parking directions, but subway station names and exit numbers (or bus stops). Most people take public transportation and walk, because gasoline fuel is not subsidized–well, not to the extreme of places like in the U.S. or U.A.E. Most places are more convenient to get to by public transit so you don’t have to worry about gas prices or parking (but a lot of people simply don’t have cars; whereas in the U.S., the mean number of cars per household is higher than drivers per household). There are paths and roads that prioritize (and were made for) people rather than cars–e.g. protected pedestrian and bicycle lanes subsurface to streets with parks, benches and convenience stores. Many of these Asian economic mammoth countries struggle with energy security and still burn coal for the majority of their power generation. I sleep on the floor on a padded mat rather than a mattress.* I don’t have on-demand immediate access to hot water. I still have to “turn on” the hot water boiler if I want to take a hot shower and this same combined heating system makes my apartment floor toasty (because I sleep on the floor). It may not give me the quick access I desire, but by clicking that button and during the 15-minutes wait, I am conscientious of the energy it takes to heat my shower water.
Koreans don’t eat red meat (i.e. beef) at every meal or even everyday … because again, the land is limited for cattle to graze, which leads to limited supply so it is cost prohibitive (until the FTA and cheap beef imports from US and Australia enter the picture). (Targeting the methane producers–we had to eventually get here, but if you didn’t already guess–, the cattle and livestock industry competes with oil & gas industry leaks as the top emitting source of methane in the U.S.). I believe seafood, poultry (well, until the last Avian Influenza hit) and pork (still confused whether this is red or white meat?) are more popular sources of protein in Korea–along with tofu, beans and other soy products.
All that being said, I hope you don’t think I am just “hating on the U.S.” and no, I don’t want to hear “if you are so critical of America, why don’t you just stay in Asia/Korea” … that is far from my point. There are plenty of veteran environmentalists and minimalists in the U.S. that have predated this blog entry. I love America and it is part of my extended definition of “home.” I simply have higher expectations for a country that I know could do so much better. For one, accountability for high greenhouse gas emitting industries (i.e. oil & gas, livestock, landfills) that are heavily subsidized or even controlled by the government; and a close second, better infrastructure and municipal services (e.g. public transportation, safe routes/amenities for bicyclists and pedestrians, trash/composting/food waste/recycling, etc.) that restrict or provide a range of available citizen choices. Not all countries allow civic engagement and not all regulatory policies (e.g. food trash separation) are by citizen choice abroad–they may be good for the planet, but are honestly a little inconvenient for people. It might be a little uncomfortable at first, but knowing what we do, wouldn’t it be a little irresponsible not to do anything? Individual choices to consume less and reduce waste are one thing (and critically to making any kind of impact), but advocating for wider change in policies to stop leaks and revolutionize industries and public systems can be game changing.
So, would I call myself a minimalist? Not necessarily (although, my boyfriend, bae, is trying to convert me). But, yes, being abroad has changed me. So now, when I look at superfluous packaging all in the name of marketing, I think it is a waste … and get a headache trying to figure out which part (plastic, cardboard, staples) goes into which receptacle.
*Not all Koreans sleep on the floor. Modern apartments exist and many people in my generation have opted for beds. Not saying that all Koreans have these older standards of living—westernized living standards have crept into the country—, but if you’re feeling sorry for an older, more traditional standard of living, you’re kind of missing my point. People (including myself) rarely have the foresight to take the time to research how their mattress was made and whether their mattress materials are recyclable, nonetheless go through the actual process to separate and prevent all that bulky material from ending up in a landfill after its useful life cycle. Just sayin’.
https://thinkprogress.org/methane-emissions-are-spiking-but-it-might-be-more-cow-than-car-791e5233dc2a (shutterstock photo)