'Go greener' for a more spiritual, low-carbon lifestyle

Wang Yong
The author explores nuanced ways for people to "go greener" and benefit both the environment and themselves.
Wang Yong
'Go greener' for a more spiritual, low-carbon lifestyle
Wang Yong / SHINE

A new, low-carbon watertown is taking shape in the heart of the Yangtze River Delta region, which borders Shanghai and nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

To create a low-carbon life, many people would suggest pulling down polluting factory chimneys and making solar power more accessible, thereby reducing reliance on fossil fuels – a key culprit of carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

While these suggested measures – largely implemented with government support or supervision – help reduce carbon emissions significantly, there are many more nuanced ways for people to "go greener" that merit our attention.

On June 15, China convened a high-profile conference in Shandong Province to celebrate National Low-Carbon Day, calling for a concerted effort by individuals and industry to create a low-carbon society. A day earlier, The Paper, a leading news portal based in Shanghai, published an article on how people can learn to reduce their carbon footprints through small, incremental efforts.

What individuals can do?

The Paper cited China's latest guidelines on how people can nurture "greener" habits in key aspects such as food, clothing, shelter and travel. The guidelines were prepared and promulgated by the China Environmental Protection Federation.

Based on discussions among scientists and professional managers, the guidelines recommend 40 specific actions people can take on an everyday basis, such as saving electricity and water, recycling used clothes and printing on both sides of a piece of paper. More sophisticated measures include digital payments and electronic commercial contracts.

The latest research by the Chinese Academy of Sciences suggests focusing on individual contributions to a low-carbon life. The academy has found that household consumption makes up 53 percent of the country's total carbon emissions. While the industrial sector must improve its production and transportation efficiency to reduce carbon emissions, individuals are equally responsible for a cleaner future.

By saving paper, we save trees, which capture carbon through photosynthesis. A seemingly small individual effort goes a long way toward a society's collective good.

American environmental law professor Karl Coplan has published a book titled "Live Sustainably Now" to chronicle his daily efforts to reduce his carbon footprint over the past decade or so. He recalls how he once commuted to work across New York's Hudson River via biking and kayaking.

Not everyone can repeat Coplan's feat, but we can all do something to benefit our planet. Here are two examples of what I have been doing lately to reduce my carbon footprint.

First, saving electricity.

During lockdown, my wife and I took an online course on pranayama, a yoga breathing exercise that originated in India. Our teacher, who was trained in India, suggested regular breathing exercises in well-lit venues and meditating under candlelight.

Luckily, I had plenty of plant-based candles. Unlike candles made of paraffin, they emit very few harmful materials into the air. The more I meditated under dim and soft candlelight, the more I found peace in my heart. I then persuaded my wife to light a candle at our dinner table around 6pm when it begins to get dark instead of using lights in our 40-square-meter parlor. She agreed.

Nearly a month has passed, and we find ourselves well adapted to a life less powered by electric bulbs. We do not always light a candle, but we have cultivated a new, low-carbon habit: We no longer turn on all the lights in our parlor, even if it's late at night.

I recently installed one small lamp with LED bulbs in both the dining and reading areas. As we don't dine and read at the same time, we turn on only one lamp when we dine or read. In the past, we usually turned on all the ceiling lights.

'Go greener' for a more spiritual, low-carbon lifestyle
Wang Yong / SHINE

The author has begun to draw pictures on used paper. Using less paper goes a long way toward saving trees, which capture carbon through photosynthesis.

'Go greener' for a more spiritual, low-carbon lifestyle
Wang Yong / SHINE

A self-made bookmark: One can draw pictures on used paper and cut them into unique bookmarks.

Second, saving paper and wood.

For about a year, I've drawn pictures late at night to relax after a hard day at work. I used to draw landscapes and portraits in sketchbooks, but now I draw on used paper instead. As a beginner, I've taken more interest in sketching on used paper, because I no longer worry about ruining paper with a minor mistake. The more relaxed you are, the better you control your pen or pencil.

Another advantage of sketching on used paper is that I can cut around my drawings and turn them into bookmarks.

To save wood, I've been buying bookshelves made of recyclable cardboard. I have a mini library in my attic in addition to our parlor's reading area. The library walls are lined with dozens of cardboard bookshelves designed and produced by a Japanese company.

By saving wood and paper, I have helped save trees.

The power of harmony

During lockdown, I learned to save water and "put up with" driving less. I have also learned to grow vegetables on my terrace. All these seemingly small behavioral changes have gradually become habits.

I have come to realize I am helping myself by helping our planet. In leading a low-carbon life, we're benefiting both nature and our physical and spiritual health.

By reducing our carbon footprints, we're deriving less happiness from material comfort and more from what William Wordsworth (1770-1850) called "the power of harmony" between our soul and nature.

As an important literary work in British Romanticism that championed harmony between man and nature, Wordsworth's classic 1807 poem "The World Is Too Much With Us" laments that many of us have traded our spiritual liveliness for material gain. He challenged the Industrial Revolution's dark side, later recognized as a harbinger of a high-carbon growth era in Europe.

In the poem, Wordsworth notes the mundane world, with too much "getting and spending," ruins our kinship with nature, especially our innate ability to see all that nature provides us. The poem was also a polemic against the then-prevalent utilitarianism preached by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).

In Wordsworth's view, life has a purpose beyond utilitarian "getting and spending." Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), an English critic and poet, shared that view in writing "there are other goods in the world besides bare utility."

Since the Industrial Revolution commenced in the 18th century, a pursuit of linear material progress has largely drowned out rational voices in the West. Over time, the utilitarian "getting and spending" that Wordsworth feared has gotten the upper hand in many economic theories and activities the world over.

It's high time we revisit Wordsworth's "power of harmony" notion, which in many ways resonates with ancient Chinese philosophies that espouse spiritual enlightenment over material pleasure.

An enlarged mind

Material progress is not all bad. However, we must be vigilant about doing everything within nature's means, and less is more in our search for the true meaning of life.

As I take a small step each day to cut my carbon footprint, I find myself less worried about my own material possessions and more concerned about the wellbeing of others and our environment.

To borrow a word from Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), a renowned philosopher and mathematician, I've derived pleasure from an enlarged mind – a mind emancipated from the yoke of utilitarian calculations.

'Go greener' for a more spiritual, low-carbon lifestyle
Wang Yong / SHINE

No high-rises can be seen around Yuandang Lake, the core area of a future low-carbon watertown.

I experienced this pleasure again last week, when I twice visited the core area of a future low-carbon watertown now taking shape around bucolic villages in western Shanghai and nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

Standing by Yuandang Lake that lies at the heart of the future town, I looked into the distance in all directions and saw no high-rise buildings. The lake seemed to be one with the sky.

It was so quiet I could even hear the burbling sound of water from afar as a boatman paddled along the coast to remove weeds from the lake. A few people chatted in the background, but their voices were negligible compared with the clear paddling sound that soothed my heart.

How much pleasure I derived from this serene, natural scene, devoid of Benthamite calculus of utility!

'Go greener' for a more spiritual, low-carbon lifestyle
Wang Yong / SHINE

A boatman removes weeds from Yuandang Lake.

In a similarly serene mood, Wordsworth wrote in 1789 that "with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things." In other words, one can hardly see into the life of things without understanding the power of harmony between man and nature, or the deep power of joy over something that defies utilitarian definition.

Thanks to efforts by Shanghai and nearby provinces to grow ever greener, I have been following the region's pulse and appreciate the sublime beauty of her well-preserved natural settings.

By 2035, the future low-carbon water town centered around Yuandang Lake will feature near-zero-emission buildings on four corners and vast water and rural areas in the middle. A huge Huawei research center comprised of low-rise buildings will stand in the future town's northeast corner, dwarfed by lakefront forests. According to the latest regional development plan, this idyllic water town will eventually become a national or global model of near-zero-emission growth.

Construction is underway to extend Shanghai's Metro Line 17 westward to cover the Yuandang Lake area. It takes 40 minutes to drive there from my home, but when I eventually take the Metro to get there, I'll reduce my carbon footprint even more in my search for "secret messages" nature utters to those who are fit to hear them.

'Go greener' for a more spiritual, low-carbon lifestyle
Wang Yong / SHINE

A couple at Yuandang Lake last week

'Go greener' for a more spiritual, low-carbon lifestyle
Wang Yong / SHINE

Vast stretches of flowers and grassland adorn the Yuandang Lake area.

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