I lived in Hong Kong when I was a teenager. I was accustomed to water shortage and rationing. This small territory had no underground water and must rely on either rain or imports from China. A severe drought in the summer of 1967 reduced household water supply to four hours every four days. I helped collect tap water during those precious hours using buckets and plastic bags of all sizes. It also necessitated careful water usage to keep wastes to minimum. I bathed with no more than four gallons of water from a bucket, and even managed to save some used water to flush the toilet. To me, the bathtub is a luxury. Although accustomed to the shower now, I still prefer to wash my hair the traditional way with a bucketful of water.
My family of five lived in a middle-income 600-square-foot apartment on the 15th floor. The crowded condition preempted the common use of drying machines. This explains why clothes are hanged outside the windows on many high rises. The habit of drying my clothes outdoors continues up to this day, but in the backyard under the California sun. On rainy days after machine washing the clothes at night, I hang them on chairs, handrails, and wherever I find convenient inside the house. They will get dry by morning. If not, ten minutes of drying machine will finish the job. My kids say I am a miser trying to save electricity but causing all kinds of inconvenience. Too bad, they cannot change the old man’s weird habit.
The above shows my way of conservation as a habit shaped by external forces during teenage years. It is not meant to be a recipe for other people. Although the acts appear strange, I manage to convey the idea by setting an example.
The other point I want to make is that conservation is a culture shaped by internal economic development, too. In industrialized countries especially the United States, water and energy are available anytime. People tend to take natural resources for granted. The culture of waste is evident everywhere that includes: watering the lawn to over-saturation; lights on during daytime; heater on instead of wearing more clothes; shaving while the tap water is running; and wasteful consumption of food, paper towel and even toilet tissues. (The great miser cannot help complain again!) So, where comes the incentive to conserve? How can people be persuaded to reduce their carbon footprints?
In developed countries with a high standard of living, people consume more natural resources due to the widespread use of machines and the large quantities of goods produced. The huge amounts of goods naturally result in huge amounts of wastes. As well known, the US accounts for 25 per cent of the world’s total waste even though its population is less than 5 per cent. It is inevitable that a high standard of living breeds a culture of waste, unless will power intervenes. However, will power only comes from conviction or deep concern that results from education or enlightenment as far as the environment is concerned. In most cases, the incentive to conserve relies on the pressures of high prices that bite into the budget, gasoline being a good example.
In view of the deep-seated culture of waste, conservation depends heavily on two basic ingredients to succeed: education and cultural change, which reinforce each other. Both are proceeding steadily but not as fast as hoped for. Regarding the former, the “edible schoolyard” being introduced in the San Francisco Bay Area is a very creative program to educate the young. Middle-school students learn to grow vegetables and fruits in a dedicated section of the schoolyard. The produce is eaten in school lunches to substitute for processed food. This helps the youngsters connect with nature and appreciate the need for environmental protection, instead of thinking that food comes from the vending machine or the delivery truck. The general public, too, needs enlightenment and inspiration through constant education in many different ways, if we want to build strong political support for environmental legislation.
As for the other basic ingredient, cultural change must begin with the individual who is concerned about environmental degradation. Each person has a job to do, that is, to make conscious lifestyle adjustments to consume less and waste less. Besides saving money, the individual is setting a good example to influence family members, neighbors and friends. In effect, the individual acts as a messenger to spread the word. The acts of individuals will definitely make a difference, which may be hard to visualize initially. Individual actions will foster two powerful forces — the demonstration effect and peer pressure evident in human behaviors. It will take time for these two forces to accumulate. When a critical mass is reached, you will be surprised how much a changed culture can transform the world.