I just returned from a two-week trip to Japan, where my husband’s classic textbook, Consider a Spherical Cow: a Course in Environmental Problem-Solving, was translated recently into Japanese. We were invited to give talks, and in return, they showed us some unusual wildlife in the wild — their famed but now endangered red-crowned cranes making a last stand in Hokkaido, and the giant Japanese salamander, which can reach 6 feet in length, weigh up to 90 lbs, and live, it is estimated, up to 200 years. (The same goes for its Chinese cousin, BTW.) Google-image it to see what this looks like – then imagine looking for it at night in the right streams. Doing so was incredibly exhilarating — to our hosts’ amusement, I actually started shouting bonzai when we started spotting them.
For the Japanese, sustainability is a key word. They are, iconically, a practical people, forced by a necessity that originates from living on a small archipelago with few natural resources. Most of their cars are compact and fuel efficient, with a fair number of ultra-compact ones (e.g., SMART). Our host’s non-hybrid Hondo got 40 mpg, for example. Health sustainability is built into their lifestyle. Besides a low-fat diet high in fish, they present hot or sterile wet napkins BEFORE the meal to initially clean hands of hitch-hiking microbes that could be ingested. Imagine how many fewer Americans would get sick if we adopted such a custom.
And they admitted feeling angry and betrayed by a government that allowed their country to become contaminated with nuclear radiation. To understand the gravity of this, recognize that the Japanese, ever a polite people, do not anger easily. When a motorist nearly ran into our van on Hokkaido by rushing past us, our hosts’ reaction was “what poor manners he has!” Can you imagine Americans in a similar situation reacting that way? So, anger is an emotion reserved for even more extreme situations, and they are only too ready to develop a more sustainable energy future without nuclear at this point. How to do so is now on their radar.
They recognize that part of a sustainable future includes gender equality, especially in the sciences, where women are still a minority. Thus, they were very interested in what I had to say, as a woman scientist, by way of encouraging more women to become scientists. Basically, it’s the same message globally — the men in power have to recognize women as social and economic wage-earning equals, basing their hiring decisions solely on merit, and providing extra help to those women who are still hobbled by the role of primary child carer. They’re working on it.
They still have many sustainable issues to deal with, such as using electricity in ways we would not think necessary. I suspect that their high tech toiletry, which includes heated seats on many public toilets, sometimes even with boxes that generate a flushing noise to mask one’s real noises, uses more energy than ours. But more importantly, they use significantly less energy per unit of economic production than we do, and more than 90% of the population understands and feels threatened by global warming.
We would do well to follow their example, in many ways.