Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Lip Service Environmentalism

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.



I am very impressed at how many people take their own bags in your country, here in Wales very few people do.Thankfully more and more people are using less plastic bags but it is a very slow process.

Androo said...

For me, much of the motivation behind doing things that are "environmentally conscious" aren't even motivated by my concern for the environment; it's because it's cheaper. Recycling, re-using items, not using heat/AC, etc etc all fall in line with my relatively frugal lifestyle, especially for someone living in LA. Is it nice to do a little bit to reduce my carbon footprint? Sure. Is that why I recycle? Nope.

I have yet to graduate to the canvas bag because we don't have a trashcan in my apt and we use those grocery bags in their stead, but once I move this summer, I'm going to try to make the switch.

Shari said...

Mother of many: Hi there and thanks for your comment. :-) I think the Japanese could do a lot better on the plastic bag front based on my observations. I've seen people go into a convenience store, buy a cold drink, allow the clerk to put it in a small bag, and then walk out the door, remove the bag, throw it in a trash bin right next to the door of the shop, and then drink the beverage. It's appalling how thoughtlessly wasteful people can be.

Androo: I think doing things because it's cheaper is a start but the planet isn't going to ultimately be fixed unless we move beyond a cultural notion in developing nations where people can consume up to their financial ability to do so. I think that accepting bags which you actually use for trash is a good idea provided they actually get used (as you're using the the grocery bags instead of buying others). If I thought everyone would stop wasting energy and materials because they were too poor to do otherwise, I'd hope (tongue in cheek) for the U.S. economy to crash and burn.

In the U.S., in particular, there is a relatively pervasive attitude that we can use all the energy we want as long as we can afford it. It's a very destructive notion. In the long run, this sort of lifestyle will drive up the cost of living more and more for everyone and it's delaying an inevitable need to live more modestly and uncomfortably.

In Japan, excessive wastefulness is held in check by paternalistic guidance and a culture of obedience. In the U.S., the only thing holding people back is cash.

Thanks for your comment, too. :-)

Julie said...

Very interesting post. I noticed that whenever you buy or order anything in Japan, it's always elaborately wrapped. In Vancouver, where I'm from, it seems like everyone takes their bags to do grocery shopping or to go to the library, but that's mostly because most bags cost money here. I think more countries should start charging for bags.
Is composting common in Japan? I am moving there at the end of the month and was curious about that.

kousaku said...

I think that the Japanese can do a lot more to help the environment, but I think in relative terms, it's still much better than most countries.

Lip service is common even among supposedly "environmentalists" on college campuses in America who make ostentatious displays of environmentalism without real sacrifices.

Let's take your example of the Japanese student who turns on her air conditioner every day to dry her clothes. Compare this with North America where there is central heating and cooling and where it is unthinkable to not heat and cool every single room in the house.

Consider, also, the disproportionately high percentage of composters in Japan, the fact that virtually all public bathrooms use recycled water, and, yes, the fact that environmentalism is not a petty political issue like it is in other parts of the world.

It seems that you're conclusions are based on a few isolated facts. I agree that bags in particular are Japan's most disgusting and worst environmental sin. I even agree that most people pay lip service to environmentalism in Japan. It is, after all, hard to be a hippie in the first world.

But the implication of this post, and correct me if I'm wrong, is to inform us about some uniquely Japanese attitude about environmentalism. I think that they certainly have serious flaws, but virtually every last thing you said sounds symptomatic of any first world nation.

Shari said...

This post actually didn't have to do with Japan only. In fact, I said:

"That's not to say that the U.S. is doing any better (or even as well)."

This means I believe people in the U.S. are not doing as well as those in Japan (IMO). At no point did I say anything about my comments reflecting a "uniquely Japanese attitude".

In fact, I said of the U.S.:

"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."

It seems you're reading a posture into my post which isn't there. If anything, my attitude is more critical of Americans than Japanese, but my examples are Japan-based because those are the people I experience in my daily life.

However, I will note that the composting rates you mention are not individual composting efforts but the efforts of the facilities which collect and sort garbage. Additionally, while water is recycled, again, this is not an individual effort. The efforts you speak of are taken at a higher level and do nothing to contradict what I said about individual attitudes or efforts. In fact, it directly relates to what I said about doing only as the government says and little beyond that. They sort the garbage because they are required to, but they don't personally compost it because they are not required to do so.

Apparently composting in Japan is very difficult because much of the waste that can be composted contains cooking oil which must be specially processed. Individuals would be very hard pressed to deal with it alone for that reason and because much of the population is in urban areas where there is no access to areas suitable for composting.

In regards to water, again, living in urban areas with limited access to sources of fresh water means water must be recycled. It's the same in all urban areas with the issue of handling immense demands for water. You're not giving examples of Japanese conservation, but of the absolute necessity of living in a country of Japan's size and with its population density.