Caroline Roy's Blog

Hong Kong
I am a recycled travel writer/advertising executive and a long term yoga practitioner. Having to raise two children in Hong Kong has made me an even more passionate green householder. I began to deepen my daily inquiry about sustainable living in 2006, when I was looking for a family home in Germany. I built an eco house in an alpine ecological farming community, where we spend time every year and learn more every time. I feel that it is more important than ever to educate ourselves about our environment. It is a great joy to share ideas, observations and solutions.

My 5 Favorite Discoveries about Living Green

An Inspiration
May 20, 2013

When I read Paul Gilding’s book The Great Disruption in 2011 it was as if someone had finally put into words what had been in the back of my mind for decades. His message: the world is full of our stuff. We are running out of natural resources, space and time. Expect a great disruption to life as you know it. Our future will…
consist of less stuff, less convenience and much more education about our environment… and that’s for the lucky ones. Get used to being shocked on a daily basis, as food shortages, local droughts, polluted oceans, volatile financial markets, higher prices for commodities and other uncomfortable facts will be the new normal.
Nothing about this is new. I grew up in Germany. Most Germans have been guided by a green sensibility since the 1970s. I never quite got used to the consumption patterns of the Anglo-Saxon world, and 15 years in London followed by almost a decade in Hong Kong had worn me down. Paul Gilding’s convincing account of the state we are in reminded me to wake up and start to connect what I know to the way I live.
My better green life
How do you live your best green life in Hong Kong? This city appears to be in denial when you visit any of the mainstream shopping malls. You’ll see hundreds of keen shoppers carrying multiple branded shopping bags over their wrists, rushing to the next costly promise of bliss. You’ll see coffee shops selling drinks in disposable cups with plastic lids, or in huge plastic cups, and handing out plastic cutlery as if there was no tomorrow. Supermarkets, electronics retailers and book stores go heavy on plastic packaging. Excess consumption seems to be the sole visible purpose of public life, perceived as acceptable, conventional, efficient – or should I say normal?
Our expat reality: we have two kids. Our meals at home consist of imported organic vegetables, salad and chicken from Australia, New Zealand or the US. The fish we eat comes from Tasmania, Alaska or Norway. Staples like flour, lentils and beans comes from Europe, as do the cheeses, oils and our butter. The local Chinese farm that delivered part of our vegetables and salads in a weekly box has just shut down their operations – so we rely even more on imports. In our apartment you will find chargers for generations of phones, blackberries, laptops, ipads, ipods and iwhateverwillbenexts. In the summer months, our air con blows to give us relief from the oppressive, humid heat. In winter and spring, a de-humidifier rumbles in the corner, delivering about 2-4 liters of water every day (I always wonder: can one make tea with it?) I forgot to mention the massive air cleaning unit that occupies the corner of our dining room – on 24/7/366. Hong Kong has excellent public transport if you live centrally. But we moved out a few miles in hope for some cleaner air to breathe and became dependent on our car during the summer months. So the basics of our domestic life already demand massive energy consumption. Add our need to regularly travel to Europe and the US to see family and friends and connect our third culture kids with some of their parent’s culture, and you wonder how I even dare talking about green living.
I wrote a diary for exactly 100 days. Every day I asked myself: what can I do to reduce our massive footprint to an elegant small size? How can we, as a family, live our best green life in Hong Kong? I came up with many practical changes in my habits. But more so, I made some fundamental discoveries about how my mind turned green as well.
First Discovery: Gratitude
What surfaced from day 3 of my efforts to save water, electricity, petrol and paper was, unexpectedly, a fresh sense of gratitude. Every morning when I opened the tap and saw a stream of water curling up in the sink it I thought: Thank you! I began to feel how there is nothing inevitable in having a life with plenty of clean water. Most generations before us did not have it, a huge proportion of people living on this planet right now don’t have it, and we have to be pretty brilliant to keep it flowing for our children and future generations.
The same sense of appreciation penetrated other areas of my life: the electricity, heating in the winter, the internet, the fresh food, coffee (!), washing machine, a dishwasher, a car that is actually running, petrol, the resources to travel and meet people, enjoy so many things like books, movies, hikes, swimming, practicing yoga, a dinner with family, friends… there seemed to be no end to my list.  Everything in my daily life began to feel precious. Here I should mention that I often – and especially since my children have been born – been wondering how we have deserved to live in comfort, whilst so many people do not. But the determined reflection on resources brought this perspective to a different level. I began to see the amazing infrastructures around me, the logistics and the energy that supports our sense of well-being. I had expected to become more serious, exacting and pessimistic in focusing on those unfavorable aspects of human consumption and waste. But instead, I wondered where all that luxury is coming from.
I believe that to appreciate our resources is essential in creating change. What we value, we treat with care. We give it attention. We understand its worth. We do not waste it. Less water. Less electricity. Fewer car rides. Less stuff. I reduced, reduced, reduced. I weighed our trash each week and recorded the differences. It is clearly more work, requires planning and preparation, results in new habits and consistent behaviors: turn the tap off, spend less time in the shower, cut envelopes in pieces for shopping lists, print on both sides of the paper (I still get confused which side goes upwards for the second print…), walk more, drive, whenever possible, without air con. I reduced every little thing: half the soap, shampoo, dish washing powder, laundry detergent. Shorter laundry and dish washing cycles. I ask for a mug in a coffee shop – and if that is not an option and I still feel it would make all the difference to have that coffee, I ask for a cup without a plastic lid. People in line copied me, suddenly realizing that they probably don’t need a lid on their coffee either; after all, generations of people have enjoyed their coffee lidless. I unpacked vegetables in supermarkets and returned the plastic trays to the staff so they could use them again if they could not get rid of them in the first place. I earned a few glances and a few followers each time. Refusing waste in the first place is still the fastest way to reduction. These small steps condition us, teach us, little by little, what works throughout the day and what doesn’t.
Second Discovery: Optimism
I expected that the ever-present fact that there was only so little I could do against climate change, deforestation and irreparable damage to oceanic life would frustrate me. And while it certainly is insignificant whether I shower using 25 liters or 45 liters on one particular day, it’ll be quite a lot of water saved when it becomes a life-time habit. More so, we can lead by example and influence our children. It gives me optimism. Now I was grateful and optimistic. What would come next?
Third Discovery: You Cannot Go Back
Once the mental dials are set to ‘conserve’, it is painful to go back to waste without feeling pain. Most people have to waste something, sometimes: traveling, and living with small children are my two own worst waste experiences, topped only by traveling with small children. But I noticed that having to buy bottled water when I could have been organized enough to bring my own makes me cringe. Or take children’s birthday parties: the average Hong Kong party bag for a child contains a minimum of 10 US-Dollars worth of artificially colored sugar in excessive wrapping and an aggressively packaged toy (oddly, the packaging is hard to destroy, but then the toys fall apart within minutes after the kids get them out of that package). I have handed out party bags like those myself and felt frustrated about not having been resourceful enough to find something that kids like more and that would be so much better for everyone. Which leads to discovery number 4.
Fourth Discovery: Let go… sometimes.
How very important it is to relax your standards every now and then to keep sane I cannot stress enough. Sometimes you have to do something you might not agree with, if only to stay fun and keep the kids – or yourself! – happy – especially when it comes to Hong Kong style birthday parties. They are invariably too expensive, terrible value for money and are, from a nutritionist’s point of view, as unhealthy as gobbling down a lump of freezing cold poison. For our children, however, these events are proof that they are like their peers and that their parents aren’t some weirdos who make them feast on beetroot and celery sticks. I once took the trouble to bake organic dinosaur puzzle cookies with my son, wrapped them beautifully and packed them into home made paper party bags. Many parents loved it. The kids were confused and disappointed (just some, to be fair). I guess we owe children not let ourselves turn into bitter dogmatists – just because the world is coming to an end.
Fifth Discovery: I want to be invited again
Now that may need some explaining. Imagine you are invited to spend the weekend with friends in their country house, or you are visiting some distant family for an afternoon, or see your neighbors for dinner. What’s on your mind? You most likely give some thought to how you can contribute to a successful visit, bring a present, let go of your moods and preoccupations for that period of time. Once you arrive, you will appreciate your host’s effort, comment on the home, treat the place with respect. You tune in with other people’s state of mind, see how you can contribute. You would help to make whatever situation arises work for everyone. In short, being a good guest requires a certain mindset that informs your behavior.
Maybe it is not so surprising that this same mindset came up when I transitioned into my best green life – no matter where I was. More so, I became aware that whatever was available to me was the effort of past generations, and that I needed to make an effort for my own children and their future. To most of us this is obvious when we think about it. But then, it stays in our thoughts and does not go much further – just as we stop being a guest when we are back home.
After a week into my 100 days of green living I had lost every sense of entitlement. Instead, became acutely aware of the fact that I, too, was a temporary guest on earth and had to treat what is available to me whilst I am here with great care. It does apply to anything that serves us – water, food, infrastructure, anything. So often we get absorbed by our own problems and situations and forget that what allows us to have these interesting problems in the first place is the fact that we have enough water, food and shelter. Take one of these away and you run into real problems: survival. I am not suggesting we adopt a permanent survival mindset – that would be exhausting. Save that for immediate survival situations. Being a good guest is more simple – and it works!
So if we want to keep getting invited to live here, we need to behave.

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