We are increasingly told to adopt sustainable daily living habits, as a way to show that we care about the earth. Be green! Turn off lights when not using them, bring your own bag, take the stairs instead of the elevator, reduce your waste, or take mass transit instead of taxis. With the best intentions, you can do all of these, and more, and yet you might still come up short. Why? Because the big-ticket decisions have already been made for you.
I live in Hong Kong where mass transit is plentiful and generally sufficient for getting you from any point A to any point B in the city, in a reasonable amount of time. If I think of many other Asian cities – Jakarta, Philippines, even Bangkok—or almost any city in the US, except for Boston, NY and San Francisco – it would be difficult to rely solely on mass transit without sacrificing a lot of time. Mass transit will take you some places but those may not be where you want to go. What alternatives are there? Spend hours on the slow bus, or drive. It’s not what you might choose, but your real choices have been “edited” for you, and you are left with a choice, which is not actually a choice at all.
American landscape designed for cars
We all know that Americans have one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world – simply because the country has been designed around cars and trucks instead of trains and freight rail. So no matter how “good” your average American hopes to be, a huge portion of their carbon footprint is simply off limits by design. In other words, the American landscape was designed around a mindset in which cars were considered freedom, and the national highway system and American car companies were sources of pride and jobs. Indeed, these drove specific decisions about the American lifestyle. Today, climate change, pollution and suburban sprawl have changed all that.
These lessons – about the importance of design – are worth remembering today in Asia, because much of urban Asia remains in the design stage. Over 55% of the world’s new residential construction in the next decade will take place in China and South Asia alone: look around Southeast Asia and the amount of construction taking place is astounding. What decisions are being made about design and the resulting lifestyles? Of course, one person cannot change the course of city planning, or even the planning of one building in one district, but if the design process is to reflect the shifting concerns of ordinary citizens, we have to start asking questions sooner rather than later.
Question should start at design stage
Going back to the suggestions for sustainable living named above – each of these in fact fronts for a larger decision that has already been made. This is where the questions should start. So, conserving electricity is important, but so is the source of that electricity: does it come from coal, natural gas, or some form of renewable? Does your electricity company give you a choice, and why or why not?
If you want to take the stairs, they have to be accessible! Ask why the stairs may be blocked or locked off! And if you really want to reduce your waste, start asking companies and stores why they need so much wrapping and packaging. Probably we can do with less. But it won’t happen unless we start asking why.