Friday, August 26, 2011

Reduce: the "R" that really matters

This summer my son and I had an opportunity for adventure. We boarded a plane (actually three planes, each direction) to fly to the Seychelles Islands and spend three weeks with a branch of my second family (I adopted them on my study abroad to Madagascar in 1998). Our travels took us through the sparkling airport metropolis of Dubai, a city that has literally risen from the sand in 20 years. To the island chain of 125 islands allied together as the Republic of the Seychelles with a total population of about 85,000 people.

The Seychelles islands are tropical volcanic islands known for beautiful beaches and Creole culture. Unlike many places on the main-land African continent the roads are excellent, albeit a tad narrow, the water is clean, there is not a threat from mosquito born disease, and the public health system is superior. On La Digue, the most tourist friendly island, cars have been outlawed, and everyone travels by foot or bicycle. On the main island, most people travel by bus and only a small percentage of the population owns cars. Greater than 99% of the adults and children are both literate and multi-lingual. People are proud of their heritage and the government provides for those less fortunate.

In other words, the Seychelles, manages to provide for all the basic necessities of life that we deem important for the pursuit of life and liberty: clean water, food, good health, education, and ability to move about and speak freely. The family we stayed with lived in a beautiful four bedroom, 3 bathroom home, with indoor plumbing, but no hot water. There was a washing machine, but clothes were dried on the line. And day to day family life was not that different from ours here in the US, except that the children had few toys. Or was it that they had (comparatively speaking to a child, even a poor child in the US) no toys? So what did they do for fun? They used their imaginations, they took advantage of mobile devices, they watched some TV, and they played...using their imaginations. Other distinctions from my life in the US? Leftover food was not thrown in the trash, but fed to the dogs, and all the cars were tiny.

And during our visit these lifestyle differences were miniscule, I felt just like I was at home, but the big difference when it comes to the world is that CO2 emissions per person in Seychelles is 7.3 metric tons per capita whereas in the United States it is 19.3 tons (The World Bank, 2007). And so, forgoing hot water, when it is not really needed (it is warm enough that a cool shower is pleasant), big cars, extra plastic crap, toys, toys, and more toys, and whatever else it is that we "need" in the US makes for a huge difference in the carbon foot print of our two republics.

We talk about Reducing, Reusing, Recycling, and Re-purposing, but in my decade or so of living by these practices, I have accumulated so much STUFF. Even my supposedly frugal self has managed to accumulate and buy and contribute to the carbon foot print in such a way that I am in retrospect shocked. And so, I am left wondering, what do I really NEED. Not just what can I do do "reduce" or "re-purpose" or "recycle," but what can I completely eliminate. Does my son really "need" toys? And, to look at how we and how I acquire things? How DID I allow my son to be the owner of not one, but 4 firetrucks? Who cares if they are second hand, hand-me-downs or gifts? Why do we have them? And how many other kids in the US have more firetrucks than they have bottoms to sit on? And so, I finally really, truly, get that the reason we start with "reduce," then "reuse," then "recycle," is that reduction is the "R" that really matters.


Heather said...

Thankyou for sharing that. It reminds me again of my conviction that those who travel *must* pay attention to how life is lived in the place they visit and report back to their home community on what they have seen and learnt. The carbon emissions (as well as use of various other resources) from travelling are huge, but if those who do it report back well (as you have) then those emissions can be 'offset' by enabling us to learn from their experiences without having to repeat the travel ourselves. So thank you for your report and your reflections!

robbie @ going green mama said...

What a great post!

I struggle too, with the idea of "stuff" and "enough." Sure, I could have bought my son a cheap fire truck or three (!) at a garage sale I was at today, but does he truly need them? Especially since one has made him happy?

Green Bean said...

Truer words were never written! We have become so used to accumulating . . . Thank you for sharing.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

I love this.

Funny that I read it today, too--my hubby and I just spent the morning at my late in-laws' house, that we are trying to get cleaned out to sell. They were hoarders, they saved EVERYTHING and threw out nothing. They never donated anything because they thought they might be able to sell it instead, but they never did, and wouldn't have been successful even if they'd tried. And about 90% of what they have is needless and useless, and about 90% of the remaining 10% they didn't use, whether they could have or not...

It just makes me so sad.

And determined to NEVER leave anything like this for my children to have to deal with.

Kristen said...

Thank you for this. I never gave much thought to the order of the 3 R's. But now I will. I still accumulate way too much, and as much as I want children, I fear the onslaught of 'stuff' that comes with them! The Seychelles is one of my dream destinations - now I'm even more intrigued.

Betsy (Eco-Novice) said...

The difference in carbon footprint between the Seychelles Islands and the US is fascinating. I wonder if there is some kind of study that gives the carbon footprint for a variety of countries and the dominant reasons for the differences. I think that would be fascinating. I'm guessing that going w/o cars is a huge part of the difference between your Islands and here.

Heather said...

@Betsy, would this diagram help at all?

On the righthand 'foot' they have per capita footprints. The size of the circle is the relative size of the carbon footprint, and the colours are the regions of the world the country's in. You can see fairly easily how big one country's per capita footprint is compared to another.

The diagram doesn't give you the reasons for the different footprints, but it does show that islands, for example, tend to have very high per capita footprints - so the Seychelles must be pretty exceptional!

Also, if you select a country on:

you can see what makes up each carbon footprint. For example, in New Zealand where I live, 21% of our emissions are from transport, 18% from food, 3% for clothing etc. Unfortunately they don't include the Seychelles, but for nearby Madagascar 60% of their emissions come from food and only 1% from manufactured products!

You'll probably see that the carbon emissions figures on that website are a bit different from other sites. They assign the carbon it takes to manufacture goods to the country where they are used, rather than where they are manufactured like the IPCC does. They explain it in the FAQ section.

AmazinAlison said...

All great and thoughtful comments. I did not realize that islands in general tend to have higher carbon footprints, but it makes sense if people on the islands need or want everything that is to be had on the mainland or there is very little food production. Fish is definitely a significant part of the diet in the Seychelles and most people still do not have cars, which likely contributes to their low carbon footprint...whereas I am sure many island nations, I can think of the main island in Hawaii for example, where any and every modern convenience is to be had...


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