Thursday, March 1, 2012

Consumption: America vs. China

This afternoon I stumbled on a little story called The Green Thing.  An older lady is at a check-out line when the clerk chides her for using the store's plastic bag rather than bringing a 'greener' cloth bag of her own.  The old lady apologizes, saying "We didn't have the 'green' thing in my day."  It goes on:
That's right, they didn't have the green thing in her day. Back then, they returned their milk bottles, Coke bottles, and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, using the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled. But they didn't have the green thing back in her day.
The story lists five or six other green things that everyone used to do, just as part of life -- things like using cloth diapers, air-drying clothes, taking the stairs, biking to school, and using a water fountain instead of drinking from plastic bottles.

It made me think of my life in China.  Here are some 'green' things that I and a billion or so others do:
  • I don't have a clothes dryer.  Neither does anyone else; we all dry our clothes on balconies or out the window.
  • If I go somewhere, it's on my feet, on my bike, or on public transportation.
  • I don't heat a huge oven to bake a sheet of cookies.  My oven is smaller than my microwave.  The Chinese person's oven is non-existent.
  • I haven't used electricity to mix anything in the kitchen in over two years.  It's my hand and a spoon.
  • Half the country (south of an arbitrary line made by the Yellow River) uses no central heat.  Much of the rest of the country is under-heated.  If we're cold, we wear more clothes.
  • We don't leave lights on in empty rooms.  Stair-wells are lit by sound-sensitive lights and hallways are usually unlit.
I think the green movement is great, but if it's meant to fight the over-consumption of energy, it's fighting a monster with a toothpick.  Americans think they're going green when they switch to cloth grocery bags but spend hours a day in their personal cars.  We think we're going green when we experiment with cloth diapers.  Most Chinese don't use any diapers.  We think we're going green when we make the air conditioning two degrees warmer.  Many of the hottest places in the world use very little air conditioning.  We think we're going green when we get an energy-efficient dishwasher or shower head.  I've never seen a dishwasher in China and some people have no access to a hot shower at all.

Our fight against the over-consumption of energy is as futile as our fight against the over-consumption of food.  We make half-hearted gestures like switching to diet soda but still maintaining our basic American diet of sugars, fats, carbs, and things that come in packages.  It's just a game -- it's never going to make any real dent in obesity.  We need a total overhaul of the way we approach food (maybe we could get a little more Chinese -- eat tons of veggies, avoid sugar, and drink green tea).  In the same way, huge, significant, culture-wide changes will be needed to reverse our voracious energy-gobbling habit.

In China, over-consumption of energy and food is still a small concern, but it's on the rise.  The ones leading the way are the rich, who take their kids to KFC every weekend and follow the American trend of driving private cars instead of using public transportation.  It's kind of sad to see this troubling aspect of American culture being imitated by a culture that was doing a lot of things right in terms of eating healthy food and saving natural resources.

1 comment:

  1. "it's my hand and a spoon" <-- favorite quote of the day. haha! loved this post.