A survey on What Japan Thinks a short while ago reminded me of something that has often occurred to me when I've discussed environmental issues with Japanese people. The survey shows that only 60% of people always or frequently take their own bag when they shop and 64% of people who do take their own bags do it because they get point cards stamped for future gifts or rewards. Only about 36% say they carry them for environmental reasons.
What this reinforced to me was that, while Japanese people like to talk about how much they value nature and feel it's important to do what we can to improve the global warming situation, they are mainly offering lip service. Most of the people I've spoken with criticize the U.S. for not signing on to the Kyoto Protocol and applaud Japan's efforts in that regard but, on a personal level, do little to nothing to change their lifestyle or habits to protect the environment.
In both my former job and my current private teaching, I've discussed this topic (literally) hundreds of times. I always ask people what they do to reduce waste or pollution and the answers are generally anemic. The most common one was to "separate trash" for recycling. Since the government requires that trash be separated, this isn't exactly a personal choice. They don't do this of their own volition. In fact, most people don't trouble themselves to recycle the types of things which must be taken care of only on a voluntary basis such as milk cartons or PET bottles. Men in particular rarely make an extra effort on this front.
When I'd tell the students that recycling is about reuse and asked what they did for wholesale reduction in consumption, most said they make sure they photocopied or wrote on both sides of pieces of paper before throwing them out. Others said they were using their air conditioners at higher settings but did not say they were using them less (or not at all). Choosing not to use the heater or kotatsu in winter was especially uncommon. In fact, one of my students uses her air conditioner everyday for a few hours while no one is home simply to speed up the rate at which her laundry, which she does everyday, dries. She does this rain or shine even when she could be hanging clothes outside and saving on the power consumption.
What is often crystal clear to me is the Japanese are more than happy to be environmentally conscious as long as they are forced to do so by the government and when the larger issue isn't directly in their hands (as is the case with the Kyoto Protocol). When it comes to making the effort on a daily basis and scrutinizing their lifestyles, the thought doesn't even occur to most of them.
That's not to say that the U.S. is doing any better (or even as well). There are logistical differences (the necessity of cars, the much larger size and greater number of rural communities) though between life in Japan and the U.S. which complicate direct comparison. That doesn't make up for the extreme irresponsibility you see exercised in the States though. And, I must say that I've known more than a few Americans who talk the talk about environmentalism but fail pretty badly when it comes to walking the walk.
The common thread for all people is that they tend to draw the line at convenience and discomfort when it comes to their behavior matching their principles. If they have to put on a sweater or choose to turn up the heat (or even put on a sweater and still be a little cold), most will opt for turning up the heat unless money to pay for the extra heating is an issue.
True environmentalism is a pain in the ass. It requires you to put up with being hot in summer and cold in winter. It means you have to pass up on buying food which is cheaper and sold in environmentally wasteful packaging and buy something more expensive in less harmful packaging. It means using your own cups, plates, and flatware and re-usable storage containers instead of disposables and plastic wrap whenever you can. In short, it means giving up comfort and precious free time for the environment.
It also means taking the time to think before you act and doing whatever you can to make sure you're doing as little damage as possible when you leave your house to go about your daily business and training yourself to get into habits which may be a hassle but are less damaging to the environment like taking your own plastic bag to the store whenever getting another is just a waste.
I'm not claiming perfection on this front though I do try pretty hard to at least think about what I'm doing. I tolerate more than my fair share of temperature-based discomfort in all seasons and always think about the necessity of various types of packaging and I never get shopping bags I don't use for trash or storage. Sometimes, washing my trash day-in and day-out and storing it in 5 separate bins or bags gets really old but I do it anyway. I've also wasted money trying to repair appliances rather than replace them in order to reduce large trash. I say "wasted" because often I have to pay for the repair people to come over and just tell me there's nothing they can do or they make the repair but it's short-lived and ultimately not worthwhile.
Frankly, it gets very tiring at times and I sometimes just want to give up but I don't think I could live with myself if I hypocritically advocated people be concerned about the environment and didn't put myself out to live in accord with my ideals as best I can manage.