Photo by Eugenia Chow, Student.
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Culture, Consumerism, and Climate Change: 10 Things I Learnt from Living Out of My Backpack for 85 Days

Posted on

04/30/20

Author

Eugenia Chow, Nepal Semester Alum

Dragons Alum, Eugenia Chow, wrote this reflection on her 3-month Gap semester in Nepal for her Veganism and Sustainability blog.

Nepal Gap Year Mountains

Rolwaling, Nepal. Photo by Eugenia Chow.

During three months in Nepal, I cycled through five outfits, hand washed all my clothes in one bucket of water, ate with my hands, wiped with my (other) hand, lived without digital devices, navigated using landmarks, ate the same meal (dal bhat 90% of the time—yes, breakfast, lunch, and dinner), took 15-hour bus rides without a phone or music, did 11-hour trek days in mostly silence (speaking isn’t much of an option when you’re at high altitude), and camped out in tents at 15,000ft, with nothing but each other to warm ourselves up at sub-zero degrees.

And for the most part, it was the most content I’ve ever been.

These 85 days were, on average, very blissful. And they also happened to be the most simple. For a moment, I was able to step away from a life rife with mental, physical and digital clutter, and this novel experience drew me to an alternative way of living—revealing that it’s possible to maintain slowness in a society that idolizes speed.

So, while culture and climate change happen to be two topics that I’m passionate about, the first thing I realized after living out of my 40L backpack for 85 days was that:

1. The two are far more interconnected than I’d ever considered.

Although most of the things I listed above were simply out of necessity that the form of travel I was embarking on (device-free, challenging, encouraging you to become a ‘traveler’ rather than a ‘tourist’) entailed, many of these habits were also born out of an attempt to imitate another culture.

In psychology class last year, I learnt about a social organization framework that distinguishes cultures from being either individualist or collectivist structures. In contrast to Western ideals which are predominantly individualistic, community, unity, and selflessness are cornerstones of Nepalese culture. As a result, instead of prioritizing individual goals and wellbeing over the benefit of the greater good, they emphasize a commitment to familial values and community-oriented aspirations.

Individualism thrives off competition in a manner than drives the depletion of resources at a rate that the world can hardly sustain. As the world’s biggest capitalistic power, cultures like the U.S. have ended up conflating success with wealth, and the race for profit consequently becomes a rush to extinction—with the accompanying cost of environmental destruction.

However,

2. Consumption, greed, and virtual validation will never be the solution to happiness; nor will they be the solutions to climate change.

Nepal Gap Year Mountains

Mountain views in Nepal. Photo by Eugenia Chow.

My most memorable moments in Nepal were not marked by the purchase of my traditional-themed notebook nor the new headlamp I bought for trek. It was when I could dance and sing on top of a mountain with 14 new friends and a beautiful view of the sunset or stargaze while listening to music for the first time in two months. I was happiest when I was could feel myself forming connections with others and engage with local members of the community.

Imagine a Christmas without presents—or, at least, without material goods. I’m sure a game would be equally as—if not more enjoyable than the exchange of gifts. However, we have sadly attached the value of our relationships to the value of our goods, and we have evolved to pursue happiness in the most stressful of ways.

In Nepal, the festival we celebrated (Tihar) was not mediated by physical (or non-consumable) gifts; instead, it involved a succession of dances and offerings to celebrate and maintain intimate relationships with humans, animals, and Gods alike. Sometimes, people would freely enter and exit the homes of their neighbours during the dance ceremonies, because everyone was considered to be family.

Consumerism makes us vulnerable to the misconception that economic growth is the solution to all problems, convincing us that meaning is something which can be bought. Living in a rural village for nine days, none of us had or needed a fridge. Most of us simply used buckets as showers. Yet I was eating some of the best food I’d ever tasted and taking some of the most appreciated showers.

Which leads me to my next realization:

3. A fridge, dishwasher, washing machine, etc. are not a necessities; they are simply supplements to current lifestyles that appease our desires for efficiency.

According to Groundwork, “every year, U.S. businesses spend $207 billion on advertising to convince you that your current life is not enough,” and “some U.S. neighbourhoods have banned clothesline as an “ugly” sign of poverty.”

With the emergence of initiatives like Amazon prime, our culture of impatience has only been exacerbated to the extent where we can hardly wait more than one day to receive our online purchases. To think that Dash buttons almost became a thing simply exemplifies our incapability of remaining patient—not to mention the blatant environmental damage they would have produced.

As someone who still hand-washes dishes and air dries clothing at home, it almost makes me question whether these practices make me ‘enough’. Because “[consumerism] encompasses more than material space;“ it manipulates us into believing that our lives could be improved through the addition of something—anything.

But when will we decide that what we have is enough?

After doing some reading online and participating in Kiss the Ground’s Soil Advocacy Training online course, I’ve come to the conclusion that:

3. The term sustainability in its current use may not suffice. We need to redefine the boundaries of what is attainable in the first place before sustaining what clearly doesn’t work.

The first step is to reflect and then reconsider, or regenerate, a society that is more compatible towards the livelihoods and needs of the entire population—and not just a select few. The way we’re operating right now is evidently not working. It follows a degenerative model, which allows production and policy to leave the planet worse off for the fact that it’s occurred. This sets us on path towards ecological demise, and we need a new way of moving forward.

4. We shouldn’t just look to be mindful ‘consumers’, but mindful ‘citizens’.

Being a mindful consumer implicates that you’re ‘voting with your dollars’—purchasing items that are less harmful towards the environment and its inhabitants. But being a consumer also assumes that you have the purchasing power to allow your spendings to reveal your political standings, which automatically neglects or dismisses those who lack the monetary ability to do the same.

Therefore, being a mindful citizen focuses more on the values we embody and how this determines our everyday interactions and decisions. As a mindful citizen, we can allocate our time to being politically active or educating other individuals—important tasks that are obscured when citizens are whittled down to being simply consumers.

As mindful citizens, we can look towards building community and working together. But ultimately,

5. What we need is a cultural solution.

Nepal Gap Year Homestay

View from the kitchen of my homestay in Patan, Nepal. Photo by Eugenia Chow.

The image on the left was captured from the kitchen of my homestay family’s house in Patan. My “morning routine” during this time consisted of: waking up and drinking chiyaa (tea) alongside my homestay parents and sisters. And my night routine involved journaling and reading.

If only that was the norm; if only we haven’t internalized capitalism with the expectation that if we’re not constantly producing something or berate ourselves for taking a break almost to the point where we neglect our health—both physically and emotionally. If we don’t confront our unending desire for economic growth—a principle founded on the abundance of consumption—then we will never be able to address the looming issue of climate change. Because the two are inextricably linked.

To illustrate this point, let’s use Bhutan as an example.

Not only is Bhutan the world’s only carbon-negative country, but it’s also a nation built on happiness.

Bhutan is governed by their four pillars of ‘success’—one of them being environmental conservation. Their policies are determined under the basis of of gross national happiness as opposed to GDP, a more accurate factor of a country’s ‘success’. The government has mandated that forest areas cannot fall below 60%, partnered with Nissan to distribute electric cars to discourage the use of fuel-based ones, and subsidized LED lights and electrical public transportation—all nested under the collective goal of valuing the environment over economic growth.

Similarly, in some parts of South America, the term “Buen Vivir” has been adopted to reshape the conversation around community success. It stands for a collective well being, concluding that success hasn’t been achieved if money is earned through a means that devalues or harms your community. For instance, if wood was cut from a tree to build your house and was not replanted, it’s not beautiful because it destroyed natural space; if your shirt was produced in a sweat shop, it’s not beautiful because it exploits labourers.

So, evidently, what we require is the conversation about climate change to shift to sustainable culture. Climate change is rooted deep in our lifestyle habits, and these habits are largely determined by what we deem to be the ‘norm’.

Our values and attitudes have the capacity to slow climate change, but in order to create a truly sustainable culture, we have to be willing to change our mindsets,

accept a different pace of life and rethink our goals and place in society. This may require a fundamental restructuring of societal values, reorienting our emphasis from individualist to collectivist values. Because while many solutions to the climate catastrophe are scientific, a significant amount are cultural.

7. We need to rethink our cultural priorities/values and generate broader definitions of success.

A sustainable culture functions in harmony with the earth (take aboriginal/indigenous communities, for instance). And to quote Groundwork again, values of a culture that loves the earth include:

Nepal Gap Year Village

Living in a rural village in Nepal. Photo by Eugenia Chow.

  • Patience: I experienced this while trekking in Nepal—without any devices and sometimes the inability to have conversation due to the high altitude we were in—going on walks—sometimes at 5am with my homestay mom around the village—navigating the city without a phone or GPS, and experiencing an alternative way of thinking and living.

  • Enoughness: I encountered this phenomenon while living simplistically on a permaculture farm in Gundu and in a rural village called Koshi. Everything was produced right from our doorstep, and we were living in nature, without the distraction of any devices—just our own thoughts and occasionally a book or journal to jot them down. This idea of living off-the-grid remains unconventional in the modern world, but this simply leads me to my next realization, that:

    8. Things are simply a burden, and we shouldn’t let marketers define what success or happiness means for us.

    There are so many social constructs we could simply neglect had they not been normalized by the culture around us.

    One of my favourite things about travelling (especially when packing lightly) is how un-stigmatised it is to re-wear clothes. For three months in Nepal, I rotated between five different outfits, and never once did I ever feel “deprived.” Due to the transitory nature of fast fashion, it has been normalized to wear a new outfit to every occasion. But this expectation to wear something new or different every day is highly unrealistic, and we have to rethink the conversation on what kind of standard this sets—not just for the sake of environmental sustainability, but also because of the statement it implies towards the issue of classism.

    Moreover, during our first trek, we had no mirrors for seventeen days. This meant we could abandon all self-doubt surrounding the notion of beauty, which was not only liberating, but also a jarring reminder of how much of our self-perception is determined by what common marketing has conditioned us to desire.

  • A broad[er] definition of success: This can include being self-sufficient, preserving heritage and culture and traditions. For example, my homestay father in Patan specialized in stone carving—a form of work that is viewed as successful, partially because it serves to maintain one’s family legacy.

  • And my own: valuing community. I witnessed this through entering each other’s houses freely during the dances celebrating Tihar, stopping to actually speak to one another in the village, and seeing how everyone’s considered a brother or a sister, regardless of whether actual family ties exist.

9. Kindness and generosity are faces of collective success.

One of the most distinctive memories that remain with me from Nepal involves a singular bus journey from Bhaktapur to Nagarkot. Amidst the frenzy of boarding an overcrowded bus, one lady immediately handed her blanketed baby into the arms of another passenger. And the passenger graciously accepted it without comment or complaint. The only further interaction was an appreciative nod from the former lady, and a warm, understanding smile from the latter.

Within this few second exchange, what I immediately gathered was that people here are willing to make sacrifices for each other—prioritizing a collective wellbeing.

Sure, this may be a vast over-generalization of how all people in this country act, but it’s sad to think that the first thought in response to a free cake at my door step would be “it’s probably drugged” as opposed to “that’s so thoughtful!” because that’s the way we’ve been brought up to react.

What if, instead of competing in the name of self-interest, we took the time to connect with each other and work towards our shared goals? We need to bring back collaboration and the act of working in harmony with one another.

10. While politicians play an important role, we also have to create an environment that is receptive and ready to welcome this change with open arms.

Seasonal outfit trends, Amazon Dash buttons, and clotheslines as a sign of “ugly poverty” won’t do anyone justice anymore; it’s time we create a new normal.

As Wagner writes, “when something is public, it can become a part of a culture.” And we can do this through every day actions, in many different forms! We can shape the change and lead the conversation through education people in real life by talking to them, using our social media platforms to reach a larger audience, or running campaigns to unite people under a shared cause.

A concept I learnt in psychology class last year, reciprocal determinism, states that an individual is both influenced and exerts an influence on their environment, and while culture affects us, we, as individuals have the power to affect culture as well.

“Society’s response to every dimension of global climate change is mediated by culture.” And it is our role, as citizens—not consumers—to set the precedent for governing bodies. A global problem needs a global solution, and be it from the angle of clotheslines, clothing, or consumerism, the first thing we can do is begin by normalising simplicity.

 

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