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Living sustainably easier than you might think

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By Hiromi Matsubara

Whether it’s OLs whipping out their own chopsticks at lunchtime or drivers fretting about the eco credentials of their next cars, awareness and interest in green living have been on the rise. People are more likely to put their yen toward greener options if they can see a direct personal benefit, like cost efficiency, and a greater social value, like saving the environment.

When we try to make greener choices, the decisions seem to be based on three kinds of values and ideas. One is simply evaluating the quality of the product or service from a green angle: buying things that last longer and have multiple uses and a low ecological footprint. The second approach involves emphasizing “sharing” over “ownership.” New businesses are emerging in Japan that cater to this demand, helping people share everything from cars to used kids’ clothes.

The last approach is DIO: (Let’s) Do It Ourselves. Although I’ve been talking about “sustainability,” perhaps we need to re-define the term as “survivability,” as it’s clear that we’re running out of resources. Wouldn’t we be better off if we knew how to grow our own food, or get our own electricity from renewable sources?

It sounds difficult, but it isn’t really. In big cities like Tokyo, most homes don’t even have a yard, but internet services like Tagayashi let you search unused farms and gardens all over the country, with instructors to assist you. The merits of growing your own fruit and vegetables go beyond being able to harvest fresh, healthy food for yourself. There are additional social benefits, too: farmland gets taken care of, and Japan’s food security improves as a whole (the self-sufficiency rate is currently just 40%).

When you realize the merits of all three approaches, life becomes that much more fulfilling. But ironically, today’s society and systems are designed to be unsustainable, founded as they are on the principle of “more is more.” We have become so technologically advanced and materialistic that it’s easy to make our lives complex but much harder to make them simple. Think, for instance, of how difficult it is to avoid packaging at bakeries.

We also often remain ignorant about the consequences of our choices and actions. For example, how many of us take into account the impact of chemical residues, soil depletion and petroleum-based fertilizers as we pick up those bananas from the shelf?

In addition to the three individual-driven approaches, we need a systematic approach that involves re-thinking our core human behavior, re-designing the way things work, and the way we think. If these systems are incorporated into the basic institutions of society, we’ll naturally become more concerned about the choices we make, and hence take more responsibility for our planet.

These new ways of thinking came up during a Good Ideas Salon discussion held in Tokyo last October, where I participated as one of the panelists. An interesting mix of speakers, including technology guru Peter Rojas, architect Rie Azuma and otaku culture blogger Danny Choo, came together to share ideas on the theme of “pure living” and how to live more sustainably. But as we discovered, even these leading industry experts couldn’t always walk the talk.

That applies to me, too. I drive cars that run on gasoline, travel by airplane, and eat meat, if only occasionally. The point here is that nobody can be 100% green. We all have a dilemma because (again) the society we live in is designed to be unsustainable. So when we talk about pure living, we shouldn’t focus too much on the small details, but instead look at things holistically. That’s not to say that small actions don’t count: they do mean a lot. But try to look at the forest, and not just the tree in front of your house.

The good thing about this systematic approach is that it can only be achieved through collective, collaborative effort. We live in an era where information is freely available, everything is becoming open source, and yesterday’s enemies could be today’s friends. We need to abandon the status quo and shift from the “more is better” mindset. As Gunter Pauli, the founder of the UNU’s Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives (ZERI), says, “Sustainability is the capacity to respond to the basic needs of all, with what we already have. That’s called innovation.”

We can do better. We can do more with less.

A video of the Good Ideas Salon is viewable at www.psfk.com/pureliving.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

20 Comments
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While it may sound warm and fuzzy to use words like "self sustainability" and "eco friendly" everything we have today is at some cost to the environment.

One common example that is often ignored is that huge ships, those tankers that bring all kinds of goods across oceans from one country to another, use an immense amount of fossil fuels, and create an immense amount of pollution. Unless a country is completely self sufficient, no imports and no exports, these ships are an absolute requirement of every day life.

So far I haven't seen any companies working on building "hybrid" ships.

While it may "feel good" to pretend to be eco and self sustaining, it really isn't doing much good, unless you are prepared to forego electricity, hunt with a bow and arrow every day, and build a fire to keep warm at night.

All this "eco" nonsense is really just latest fashion, a way to show off your status to your neighbors.

The "smug" factor, so to speak.

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All this "eco" nonsense is really just latest fashion, a way to show off your status to your neighbors. The "smug" factor, so to speak.

Not necessarily. If you only do eco-friendly things, obviously nothing is going to change. But if more people get involved, the changes can be huge. Look at the way big cities like New York have reduced their air pollution - that took the effort of the entire city, and people were completely willing to cooperate! Of course nobody can be completely eco-friendly, but I feel good when I am less wasteful with the things I buy and use. Some people honestly care about the environment; the 'smug' factor has nothing to do with it.

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When we try to make greener choices, the decisions seem to be based on three kinds of values and ideas [...] evaluating the quality of the product or service [...] buying things that last longer [...]

The mainstream "green discussion" is misguided; the solution is not consuming "green", but consuming less. Although changing our consum oriented live-style by buying only what is absolutely necessary for living would be an all too harsh reality.

Hence we lull ourselves into the good feelings these "green" products promise and we all can continue to sleep well while believing to have done something for the environment ...

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I saw a deisel truck spitting out black smoke drive by me today with the words "eco car" printed on it's side.

If that is an eco car, I would like to see the pre-eco cars they had!

Ia gree that the word "eco" in Japan is merely a trendy sales catch phrase used to try and get you to buy something. No meaning at all really...

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Eco does not mean ecology here. It means economy. Business as usual.

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bamboohat - agreed.

Those eco people make me maaaaaaaaaaaad

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Hey bamboohat, maybe you never heard about it because you never looked for it ? I remember seeing a tanker being assisted by a kite featured in a video on the yamanote news channel. You know, that smug show 'eco ideas' with the green santa sponsored by panasonic, where they don't even always feature their own products.

Doing a bit of google I can find this: http://www.beluga-group.com/uploads/media/2008_03_17_LloydsList_SkySails.pdf

In the end, I did not understand what was your position with respect to earth resources depletion and our future generations ?

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hmm, here's a better version of the link

http://tinyurl.com/yae7efy

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Hmm this all seems very well except that the author drives a car and flies internationally several times a year according to the blog on website. Perhaps if she set an example other people might follow ?

the usual eco hypocrisy - it's a fashion statement at the end of the day

What is greenz.jp ? looks like a front for greenwashing to me

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kyoken: I agree. The first point about buying green and buying things that are durable is valid but more importantly is just consuming less. We live in a consumer society and grow up learning that the more stuff you have, the better. Especially now with new technology coming out every day, many feel the need to buy the latest gadget or the latest version of a product we already have. And in Japan, people don't just shop when they need something, shopping is a way to popular pastime. Get paid, go out and get something new.

The other two points in this article just aren't really feasible. Sharing a car or clothes? That might be possible in more rural areas where people live close to family and friends, but in big cities it just doesn't work. As for 'doing it yourself'...well, when there is a supermarket 5 minutes away, who is going to grow their own food? Particularly since most people don't even have a yard.

Of course we can all do our share and I do think that every little bit helps but the chances of industrialized countries completely reversing their consumerism way of life are very slim. Humans will always want to make their lives 'easier' and more 'convenient' and that means producing stuff and buying stuff.

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lobby the governments to stop making plastics and petrochemical derived products. that's real action with a good result. not eco trendy though, and therefore not so good for self-aggrandisment

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Sell crazy up the street!

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"awareness and interest in green living have been on the rise. People are more likely to put their yen toward greener options if they can see a direct personal benefit, like cost efficiency, and a greater social value, like saving the environment."

For example ? Do we have any data coming out of Japan that would support these statements ? My actual experience has been that Japan remains a nation of "talkers" not "do-ers" in terms of actual lifestyle change. Cars, especially taxis, still idle on end in parking lots and side streets. Insulation in houses is still a novelty and not the norm. Major department stores in Toyo still leave doors "wide" open in the summertime, using the cool air from air conditioners to "attract" shoppers. Stores continue to sell "individual" sized items wrapped in plastic and cardboard, then put in more plastic.

All in all I haven't seen an ioda of action in Japan- just a lot of talk !

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There are some very positive sides to the J-environment. Visiting western Canada & USA recently, I was struck by the contrast with Japan - there are almost no commuters there on public transportation, not to mention walking or biking over there. The Japanese must have a lower carbon footprint in this regards. I personally never set foot in a car all week long, and usually bike on the weekends too. And I see numerous people doing the same. It's very rare to find adults like us in USA/Canada. Europe is also on our page.

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Actually BC I too am struck at the differences. The biggest being, with all the public transportation in Japan- why do people insist on driving ? In the US and Canada I can understand it- it's called the "wide-open spaces" ! but Japan ? being the size of California with all those train lines- I too never bothered with a car while in Japan, I took mass transit. but that viewpoint doesn't seem to be shared by the majority of Japanese, many of whom think driving their cars is a "hobby"- not a necessity like in N.A.

As for the carbon footprint- there is an excellent book written by a New Zealander that clearly shows that "dog owners" creat more carbon gasses and pollute the planet more than a SUV owner. Give it a read, try to comprehend the sarcasm of it all. Enjoy.

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As for the carbon footprint- there is an excellent book written by a New Zealander that clearly shows that "dog owners" creat more carbon gasses and pollute the planet more than a SUV owner.

And to see just how false and outright dumb that claim is, refer to the following link:

http://daily.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2009/11/02/dogs-vs-cars

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Do OLs really "whip out" chopsticks? I have trouble forming a mental picture of that.

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Who cares if it's just another fashion trend? It's a good trend, is it not? So stop bashing and start saving the environment!

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What a load of BS. Recycled chopsticks and hybrid cars don´t make for sustainable life; they only make good talking points.

Fact is, modern societies are energy and resource-intensive by definition. There is no way around it.

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My actual experience has been that Japan remains a nation of "talkers" not "do-ers" in terms of actual lifestyle change

Yes this would seem to be the case. Hence in Tokyo the emergence of people using "my chopsticks" and wearing hemp hats. It's a fashion statement.

Would they give up their car or flying around the world ? Not likely. It's just trendy to give a crap, you know

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