People adapt to their environment and their environment cultivates their habits. Habits and the continuous practice of them, make life easier and this is how the so-called “comfort zone” is created. However, my exchange semester in Germany forced drastic changes in the environment that I’ve adjusted to living in. These changes drew my attention I had habits that I was not previously aware of, but whose lack of presence, nevertheless, made me feel uncomfortable and disturbed.
Just to list a few instances: I can’t easily bring my coffee to class because the cafe downstairs only provides coffee in porcelain cups that must be returned to the self-help desk — unless I cross the street and go to the nearest Starbucks; plastic bags are not an option in most shops, not even by purchase, and I was surprised to see that everyone really brings a cloth bag with them everywhere; I was asked by my host family to separate plastics from the other garbage, to switch off lights when leaving each room and to shut off water when shampooing my hair; the washing machine and even the dishwasher were used only once a week when both could be completely filled up; there was no dryer and the laundry could only be put up on racks to air-dry; most buildings had no air-conditioning and our teacher had to open the windows to let the fresh — and freezing — air in every 60 minutes.
My feelings of inconvenience arose due to many small things, but for people living there, it is part of their daily life, and these are their habits — eco-friendly habits. The green movements starting in the early 1980s most likely contributed to the adoption of these habits. The Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 expedited this movement, calling for an environmentally-friendly style of life, which led to a generation of resource-conscious people in Germany and many other places in Europe.
Good policies that provide incentives for energy conservation and innovation as well as more practical reasons like high electricity price can all help to explain why Germany leads the world in energy efficiency. But it is still striking and illuminating to witness and experience how big a role resource-conscious habits play in Germany. There are many things that we can see: for example, how friendly the city is to cyclists with the neatly arranged bike lanes all over the town. There are also many energy-saving attempts that are hidden from our eyes, such as low- or zero-energy buildings, energy-saving home appliances and organic food supplies. What is most important is that everyone seems to seriously care about the energy usage, and energy conservation is an indispensable part of everyone’s daily lives instead of just being empty talk of some “elite environmentalists.”
The aggregation of common personal habits reflects features of a nation’s culture. “Grab a drink and run,” for example, is so common in the U.S. that you can see so many people with plastic cups and straws in their hands on the street, while it is totally unnecessary to do so. A reusable water bottle, on the other hand, can reduce so much waste. Even at a Starbucks in Germany, ordering a drink “for here” means, by default, receiving your coffee in a china cup.
It is always easy to label oneself as environmentally friendly while it is not so simple to change the small habits rooted in one’s life. It’s thus important to remember that the grocery stores that kindly double-stack your plastic bags and the restaurants or cafeterias that offer disposable utensils are in fact indulging our natural tendency to over-consume, to waste and to be blind to the near future of ultimate depletion.