It’s easy to forget how good we have it. When we’re hot, we turn on the air conditioning. When we’re cold, the heat. When we’re thirsty, we drink water – directly from the tap. And when we’re hungry, we go to the supermarket where we purchase products imported from all over the world. Here in the United States, as in other developed nations, we are woefully unmindful of our prolific and ravenous consumption of the world’s resources.
I recently returned from a trip to Southeast Asia. And while it was one of the best travel experiences I have ever had, it also served as a powerful reminder of the truly unsustainable nature in which we live.
For over two weeks, the temperatures were consistently 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet most places I went barely had sufficient fans (fans that were often turned off until the arrival of a prospective customer) to combat the heat, let alone air conditioning. One restaurant in Siem Reap, Cambodia, went so far as to provide a “cool room,” a large, heavily air conditioned lounge, as a sales tactic. It worked. Every time I went in there, the place was packed (I personally went there three times, more than any other restaurant I visited on the trip). Such a strategy in the States would not be similarly rewarding, although it goes without saying that here a restaurant without air conditioning would quickly find itself also without customers.
Outside, sweat covered my body. I took multiple showers a day (a very citizen-of-a-developed country thing to do?) just for a fleeting moment of relief from the heat. I rung the perspiration out of my clothes at night. The minute I returned to the States, the moment I stepped off the plane and into LAX airport, I was chilly, blasted by the strong central air conditioning system.
Each morning and night, with only a handful of exceptions, I brushed my teeth using water from a bottle. Every day, I guzzled a cringe worthy number of water bottles, battling the relentless heat while touring some of the most magnificent places in the world. I had no choice, save bringing with me some personal water treatment apparatus, which I had not. Of course, such is not the case in the States, where I have to think we have one of the largest and most effective water treatment systems in the world. Despite this, Americans consume countless bottles of water, unnecessarily costly to us individually ($1,400 a year by one New York Times estimate) and environmentally.
Throughout the trip, I was aghast by the amount of litter strewn carelessly onto streets, religious monuments, and otherwise spectacular bodies of water. I saw maybe one attempt at recycling my entire time there. Yet, I have to wonder whether if, by comparison, our “developed” cities are really so much cleaner.
When you lift the rug, are we actually disposing of our waste, potentially larger because of our conspicuous consumption of, well, everything, in the most clean and sustainable way?
Is a gas-guzzling motorcycle engine that will ultimately carry 3 adults and 2 children more or less environmentally friendly than a Hybrid that carries only 1?
I am not an environmental scientist, researcher, or vocal activist (until now?). Rather, I am a lawyer (not even an environmental lawyer) and healthy eating blogger. Yet it is self-evident even to me that we, all of us, are living in a completely unsustainable way. At no other point in history have more people used more of our limited global resources. The developed world, particularly the United States, simply consumes too much and wastes too much. The developing world, as it strives to attain the everyday comforts we take for granted, seems to do so at a high environmental cost, yet, at least at this point, perhaps on a lesser scale than us.
I hate how environmentalism has become politicized. How the Green Movement is often considered a leftist notion and the EPA vilified. Let me be blunt: this is not a debate, this is a matter of life and death. We live in a world contaminated by our own filth. Don’t believe in global warning? Fine. But there is no doubt that, at our hands, plants and animals are endangered and extinct, “garbage patches” plague our oceans, and smog blankets our cities.
We cannot live this way and expect to go on living. Our systems cannot support it; the earth cannot support it. This is not a problem for resolution by future generations, this is a problem for our generation, so that there will be future generations. Nor is this a problem just for developed nations or just for developing nations. Rather, we all, on an individual, national, and international level, must accept full responsibility and get to work. We must make changes in our daily lives – eliminate water bottles, grocery bags, and other plastics; cutback on household cooling and heat; recycle; consume only sustainable products; shop locally. We must make changes nationally – invest in green technologies, such as green energy and a national high speed rail; demand more (much more) from the politicians we elect and the companies we frequent. And we must make changes internationally – understand that this is a global issue requiring mutual support and uninhibited exchange of best practices and resources if we are to ultimately prevail.
So, as one citizen of the world to another, I ask, what are you going to do about it?
Filed under: Travel