Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An equal and opposite reaction

I spent probably too much of my time in Bolivia explaining to my hosts, "We do things differently in California." My focus was partly intentional. They have never visited North America, and we don't know when they will have the opportunity to do so.

Partly, it was the engineer in me speaking. I'm interested in the use of resources and how things are done. I don't travel long distances for the express purpose of seeing shower heads or trash cans, but I do notice (and even photograph) such things when I'm away from home, and that's why. (I have a photo somewhere of the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. I also have a photo somewhere of a not-so-famous downspout off the baptistery roof there.)

People do things differently in Bolivia, of course, and I tried to be open minded toward those differences. I missed sometimes. I fretted about things that are bigger concerns at home. Schedules and refrigeration of foodstuffs are two such things. Bolivians have, at least in social matters, a very flexible sense of time. We arrived at least two hours late to one party to find that it had only just begun. Groceries are purchased fresher and in smaller quantities than here, and the entire city is cool and dry. (I'll stand my ground on my use of mosquito repellent and frequent hand washing. I came to meet people, not germs.) I hope I wasn't too tiresome to my hosts, but my fussing often met with a gentle but emphatic, "You are in La Paz."

Almost a week after my return home (my sleep schedule is still somewhere besides California), I'm seeing not, "why do they do that in Bolivia?" but "why don't we do that in California?" Why don't we use a clothesline when we have ample, dry heat from the sun? Why don't we wear warm, fuzzy sweaters and leg warmers and blankets instead of cranking up our furnaces? Why don't we ride public transportation? Why don't we insist that vehicles be full? Why don't we heat water when and where we plan to use it, instead of keeping a large tankful warm all the time? Why don't we eat a large meal at midday and something lighter in the evening?

In many cases, the difference on both sides is economics, more than altruism or some higher social or cultural context. Downturn notwithstanding, Californians live in relative affluence, and we act in ways that Bolivians would find far beyond their means. Californians are, as a whole, very concerned about the environment, but we're settled in to our comforts. We're accustomed to drying laundry in a powered clothes dryer and driving cars. We have high hopes that we'll develop solar and wind energy and more efficient cars. Bolivians, likewise, act in ways that Californians would not find economical. Many Bolivian vehicles are older and emit dark smoke for lack of maintenance, but fewer people have cars, more people walk, and Bolivian minibuses and taxis going longer distances seek out a full load of paying passengers before going anywhere. A sweater saves not only money on heat but often heating a home at all. It is less costly in Bolivia to buy locally grown, fresh foods than to buy packaged, processed or fast foods.

Even accounting for the aging, smoking vehicles, I'd imagine that the typical Bolivian comes in far ahead of the typical Californian in terms of overall impact on the environment, carbon footprint, overall use of resources, and most other such measures, simply because energy and many other resources are costly.

I hope my hosts were interested in my accounts of California. I also hope they take them as curious tales of a foreign land and not necessarily as ideals to emulate. I think people in La Paz have things pretty well figured out, already.



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