Column: Cultural complexities of sustainability


Photo credit: Abigale Lischak

The thirty-year-old city of Shenzhen, China acts as a backdrop for a rooftop in the Baishizhou area.

The summer after ninth grade, I traveled to Zhuhai, China with the U.S. government program National Language Security Initiative for Youth. While I was there, the other 20 U.S. students and I took part in a community service project. The goal was to converse with locals about plastic bag usage and try to persuade people to use reusable bags. 

We explained the damage plastic bags cause to the environment, yet no one wanted to change their lifestyle. As we spoke with our language partners, Chinese college students, I understood better. Plastic bags are a fundamental aspect of daily life in China. Unlike Los Angeles, where it has become the norm to use reusable bags, in China, it is uncommon to see people bring their own bags. I noticed a plastic bag, sometimes even two, was used for absolutely everything from carrying groceries to holding a plastic cup of boba milk tea. 

In order to protect the environment for future generations, sustainability must work in tandem with culture, and culture must support sustainability. 

Whale hunting in the Makah Tribe and fireworks for Diwali, the festival of lights, are examples of important cultural traditions that have harmful environmental impacts. But how can a group of people be expected to give up long-standing traditions that connect them to a culture and their ancestors?

The Makah Tribe ended their whale hunts when gray whales were listed on the endangered species list. But in the 1990s, after the gray whale was no longer endangered, the tribe fought to reinstate the tradition. The goal was to connect with their ancestors through the spiritual tradition. When they were finally allowed to perform another Whale Hunt they needed to abide by a specific set of restraints made by the U.S. that followed ethical and environmental protection guidelines. A similar tension exists between cultural practices and sustainability in other cultures.

After Diwali, images of air pollution, worsened by fireworks, surfaced across social media.  Fireworks are a crucial aspect of Diwali, but they expose the Earth to a multitude of chemicals. The chemicals are toxic for people and environments. For example, particles from fireworks dissolve in bodies of water and can harm marine life. 

Fireworks are not only used for Diwali; they are also used in many cultures, even for the Fourth of July in the United States. Blame cannot be placed on developing nations; the harmful environmental impact of fireworks continues in the U.S. 

Where is the balance between continuing cultural traditions and promoting sustainability? How can new sustainable practices be implemented through culture?

The general consciousness of the environment is increasing, as evidenced by the development of new technologies and sustainable practices. Electric cars, for example, are gaining more attention and popularity. Electric car sales grew by 63.7% in California at the beginning of 2019, but they only make up 5.5% of total car sales. Even when there are good ideas and technologies invented, not everyone does or can take part. 

In her TedTalk, The Power of Culture in Driving Sustainability, Katie Wallace uses no-till farming as an example. No-till farming is a technique that reduces the movement of soil in order to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air. She asks, “Why doesn’t every farmer adopt this practice?” Firstly, farmers need know about the technique and its benefits. Secondly, farmers need to learn how to to operate different equipment in order to successfully switch to no-till practices. Additionally, while no-till farming has been shown to increase profit long term, there is an initial cost associated with buying new equipment. Not every farmer has access to the educational or financial resources to make the switch. We risk overlooking socioeconomic status and other factors when we preach sustainable practices from a position of privilege.

Sustainability is more complex than identifying the issue and inventing solutions. The act of implementing a solution on a large scale requires social interaction and cultural understanding. Due to economic and social disparities, worldwide cultures in developed countries have a greater responsibility to adapt to support sustainability. 

The Earth is something every person, culture and country share. In a world that has become increasingly polarized by politics, climate change should be a unifying factor. Science should not and cannot be disregarded. 

I write this not as a Democrat, Republican or American. This issue is bigger than any cultural boundaries. It must transcend all barriers society has developed to divide people.