I bet you have no idea how much trash you will throw away every day, right?
Neither did I and the other 200 or so students in my university until we started recording our daily waste disposal, an act that wasn’t very pleasant to its daily practitioners and an idea thought to be futile by experts in the field of environmental science.
The method of recording could not be simpler and requires no more than an engine of natural curiosity to start it up and a little more patience to keep on doing. While carrying out the trial run, I used pen and paper to write the results down. However, in our efforts to make it as easy, timesaving and environmentally-friendly as possible, my research team designed an online waste recording form and shared it with other students through social media networks. In the end, slightly more than 200 students joined this seemingly pointless activity and their kind acts of clicking or tapping on their smart gadgets provided primary data for my research.
Guess how many plastic items 200 or so students used and discarded in one single day? 549.
Written as an equation, it would look like this: 200 students x [convenient-thing factor per day] = 549 plastic items. Although I don’t know how large is large enough for a number like that to have substantive meaning in life, I do know that if I count in the total number of 1.35 billion people as a multiplier, I will soon be sitting in a country called People’s Republic of Plastics.
After the completion of the recording part, I sent out invitations to student recorders through email for interview purposes. It turned out that hours of talking and discussion with people face-to-face was more beneficial and thought-provoking than interpreting the data. It was the reactions and changes happening in the interviewees during and after the recording that broadened my thinking around environmental education and the whole picture of environmental pollution in China.
Nearly all students interviewed reported that the self-imposed act of recording led them to become more conscious of the various things that they consume and throw away each day. Some even claimed that their level of anxiety accumulated as the length of their recording form got longer. It was the simple act of recording that suddenly dawned on recorders that the waste we generate each day actually records our economic life, which, be it a blessing or a curse, might encompass and equal our whole life.
It’s too easy to blame governments for poorly thought-out policies, or to push industry leaders to come up with technology breakthroughs, far easier than to face the inconvenient truth that our seemingly trivial daily consuming habit would accumulate and ultimately contribute to an overwhelmingly large amount of waste. Thinking from an unpleasant perspective, we are simultaneously living in and creating a world of trash.
It is said that all social movements and changes start with a rising sense of awareness. As a researcher, I was happy to hear interviewees talking about their rising consciousness about waste management, but stopping here would make this essay another kind of chicken-soup article that too easily spreads an appealing message based on unscientific research. Unfortunately, according to my interview results, it seemed that everything that starts with a consciousness ends with it too.
There are three dimensions to assess the efficacy of my recording activity as a student-initiated form of education for sustainable development: changes in attitude, awareness and actions. Because together we unconsciously created that large amount of trash, I hypothesized that a rising environmental awareness would next lead to a change in behavior among the group of recorders, and thus stir up positive social change through gathering up our efforts as individuals. However, to my surprise, few recorders have pushed forward and transformed their environmental awareness into daily practices in pursuit of a greener lifestyle. “After recording my use of disposable chopsticks for four days, I was thinking that maybe I should buy myself a pair of reusable chopsticks” said one student recorder who failed to put her words into actions ultimately. She was just thinking about taking action.
If you want to push further for reasons, they will tell you: “Personal change is not as forceful and effective as system change, therefore we are unwilling to change as individuals.” Some others believed in technological fixes instead of personal change to solve the environmental problem. For example, one interviewee claimed that it was too troublesome to use a lunch-box because he’ll have to wash it afterwards. Instead, he would be more than willing to pay extra for biodegradable take-out boxes, which would save him the trouble and at the same time be more environmentally-friendly.
It even became amusing for me to hear interviewees talking about their growing awareness, while rejecting any actual actions or even attempts to change their own lifestyle. It seemed to me that this emerging consciousness reportedly gained by every recorder somehow, mysteriously, turned into a kind of collective unconsciousness that shunned any further actions. Awareness alone doesn’t carry us along the road to social change.
So the question becomes: what is lacking between the presence of discourse and the absence of actions?
Knowledge, thought by many, could bridge this gap and link words with actions. Nearly all interviewees reached a consensus on the importance of higher education. Some recorders claimed that they failed to have follow-up actions because they haven’t been informed or instructed about specific, quantified ways to tackle the environmental problem. This mentality perfectly reflects the current situation of environmental education, or education in general, in China: We have taught students knowledge from waste recycling to climate change, but so exclusively from a top-down structure that they gradually lose the passion and curiosity to reflect, introspect and question from a bottom-up fashion.
If there does exist education for sustainable development worthy of comment in China in the first place, then it is far from sufficient, biased and unfairly distributed across the huge and varied land and across different levels of educational institutions. We have emphasized too much the role of institutions and systems, and we overlooked the role of each individual. We have too much confidence in future technologies, which, we believe, would delete words like “restraint” and “preserve” from our personal dictionaries. We, together with our media, have cultivated a collective culture in which everyone is concerned about the whole picture and about the public affairs while in the meantime everyone is unwilling to interconnect their private life and personal habits with the betterment of the whole society.
“It’s deadline. ” one interviewee answered, “There should be something like a deadline that could finally motivate people to do and change things. ” But, is there a deadline for human beings in terms of environmental protection?