Every morning in Bangalore, my host father, Prabhakara, awoke at 6 a.m. to select fruits and vegetables from a freshly stocked sidewalk stand on the main road of Thyagarajanagar, his residential neighborhood. Afterward he stopped by a local restaurant to pick up warm idli (a white rice cake) or masala dosas that were neatly packaged in one sheet of thin wax paper, newspaper, and string. After his morning exercises and prayers, he prepared breakfast: sliced apples and carrot sticks, idli and chutney (think Indian salsa), homemade roti (flat bread) and curry, or my favorite — scrambled eggs packed with chopped vegetables and spices. Each morning I was greeted with a cup of chai tea and a food-filled circular metal plate with a vertical rim that I used to wipe away excess food from my eating hand.
There were two amazing things about these mornings: the food (obviously) and the ecologically friendly process by which the food was purchased, prepared, and served. Contrast the Bangalore experience to one that is typical in Boston. If I weren’t a student, I’d drive my car to Shaw’s and buy a week’s worth of (not so fresh) imported produce and packaged, preserved foods that have a shelf life of months. I’d purchase restaurant food packaged in non-biodegradable Styrofoam cartons instead of materials that leave minimal waste. Prabhakara’s aversion to waste prevented him from buying more food than necessary. However, I’m prone to overbuying fruit and other foods. A week after their purchase, I toss out rotten oranges without too much concern.
This breakfast story is one example that contrasts two lifestyles that have different environmental impacts. “Sustainability,” “environmentalism,” going “green” — these are buzzwords that are unsparingly sprinkled in academia, retail, and the media. The latest Nobel Peace Prize went to people who alerted the public about man-made climate change. At MIT, we’re faced with the challenge of creating technologies to address present and near-future energy and environmental needs. Then there is the rise of the “green consumer,” the do-gooder who buys organic or a hybrid vehicle or solar panels in the name of a “green revolution.”
What does sustainability mean, anyway? It is generally agreed to be good, but a complete definition eludes me. I’ve heard a few attempts to give the word substance: a process that makes ecological systems indefinitely productive, making sure that future generations are as well off as the current generation, and saving the Earth from doomsday because “it’s the only one we got.” And what does practicing sustainability look like? I feel like I’m waiting for sustainable technologies and items to purchase, but in elementary school I learned to reduce, reuse, and recycle to rescue the environment. This strategy actually equates to having less.
My homestay families in India and China practiced sustainability without energy-saving light bulbs and other eco-friendly products. The only trashcan in my Bangalore house was a 2.5 gallon kitchen canister. Most of our waste could be fed to the outdoor compost bin because it was organic. Ceiling fans and floor to ceiling windows provided adequate ventilation without central cooling. With one bucket of water I could shampoo and rinse. We hung our clothes to dry on the porch. In Beijing, I visited a classmate who lived in her host family’s hutong, a type of communal-style housing with shared public bathrooms. One three-person family lived in two small rooms with a total floor area less than that of my freshman year double at Next House. The hutong was cozy and comfortable. Beijing families were lucky to own one car, but almost everyone had a bicycle.
In both cities, my families had enough and were proud of what they had. Yet interestingly, a wave of consumption is bubbling up from within these modest households as the younger generation enters a higher-paid workforce. When my Bangalore host sister, Swetha, wanted new home appliances, I accompanied her to Shopper’s Stop, “India’s No. 1 Fashion and Lifestyle store for the family.” We drove across the city to a shiny new, multi-story, lit up Sears/Macy’s department store mash-up. While Swetha was deciding on a juice extractor, I perused the selection of good, bad, and ugly items in the home furnishings, footwear, and fragrances. For similar prices at the Cambridgeside Galleria, I could have bought many of the items that young Indians were clamoring to own.
Middle-class aspirations transcend national borders. I have a professor who blames this on satellite television, which globally projects overabundant American lifestyles and extravagant consumption patterns. Instead of influencing the international middle-class living standard, maybe we Americans should aim to imitate lifestyles of our international cohorts in order to truly go green. If everyone lives and buys like Americans do, sustainability is dead (if you haven’t yet seen it, watch The Story of Stuff at http://www.storyofstuff.com/). But if Americans were to live and buy like my homestay families in India and China, the goals of sustainability might have a chance.
Of course this is not easy. Sure, sometimes I put my Nalgene to good use, opt for silverware over plasticware, refrain from having my groceries bagged, and turn off the lights in an empty dorm lounge. But I don’t budge when it comes to my stuff. After traveling around the world with two small bags, I was shocked by how much junk I had in dorm storage and even more shocked by how many items I was unwilling to part with.
A real commitment to sustainability requires a change in lifestyle. Is it a commitment that we’re willing to make?