Renmin Road in Shanghai's Luwan district

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about my big idea. It does not yet have a name, but I am starting to pin down the areas I think it will cover. It will definitely involve study of lifestyles that make efficient use of resources (not just environmental ones, but things like time, money and creativity too). Behaviors will be considered inside their cultural contexts, and I will focus on examples from the United States, Japan and China.

I chose these places for several reasons. I have a personal affinity for each: the US is my home; China is my wife’s home; Japan is the home of many of my friends and the location of some of my best life experiences. Each has a very large impact on world markets: the US is the largest economy; China is the second largest and fastest growing economy; Japan is the third largest (recently surpassed by China) and the sole supplier of many key technological components across a broad range of industries. Each has a large impact on the environment: the US has historically emitted a large amount of carbon and toxics, and still has a very high per capita carbon intensity level, one of the highest among developed countries; China is now the largest emitter of carbon (its per capita emissions are still much lower than the US, but per unit of GDP is much higher); Japan has per capita and per unit of GDP carbon emissions substantially lower than the US.

The last point is partially explained by differences in the composition of the three economies (e.g., China is heavily industrialized compared with the US). But diving deeper in to questions such as why Japan’s per capita carbon emissions can be so much lower than those of the US, yet its residents enjoy a comparable standard of living, is something that I think will become central to the kind of work I want to do.

This is where I think culture comes into the picture. Culture affects how societies organize. It plays a role in how communities are built, where people live, how they get from place to place, what things they need (or think they need) and how they obtain them, how they prefer to spend their time, and so on. Embedded in those elements are implications for resource use. For example, a community that has well-designed public transportation and mixed use neighborhoods will rely on fewer cars, have a lower transit carbon footprint, likely shorter commute times, and (hopefully) more frequent and more meaningful interactions between people. Each culture may have different norms and means of enforcing those norms, but in almost all cases that cultural identity has a significant influence on choices and behaviors.

If all this sounds unfocused and amoeba-like to you, I’ll confess that I am in complete agreement. I do not yet know what “done” looks like, as I’m not even sure what it is I want to accomplish, but I think these issues are too rich and too interesting to leave unexamined. I want to crawl into this space and look around for a while. I’m not sure what I’m going to find, but like wandering around the alleys and side streets of Shibuya in search of the ultimate bowl of ramen, not knowing is part of the fun.