The United States can learn from Japanese energy habits

by Dick Johnson

I’m currently visiting Japan, which I get a chance to do roughly every year, and I’ve got sustainability on my mind. One of the things I love about travel is the opportunity to go far way, somewhere very different, and be able to compare habits and common practices that I otherwise wouldn’t think about. Since we are still in an age where traveling long distances is very convenient, and frankly costs relatively little money, I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Since the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and related nuclear problems, energy policy has been a major discussion in Japan. Even before the earthquake, Japan did a number of things relatively well, at least compared to many other rich countries, in terms of energy. Here’s some of what I’ve noticed:

  • Energy is expensive here, so individuals are relatively careful it. Electricity, gasoline cost a lot.
  • In much of the country, driving is a relative luxury. Buses and trains are convenient, plentiful, affordable, and used widely.
  • Many people ride bikes, for instance to and frame the train station, or just around their neighborhood. It’s a normal thing to do, as opposed to just something that young people or poor people do.
  • Rooms are selectively heated.
  • It’s normal practice for plumbing intrusions in kitchens and bathrooms to be properly gasketed, to prevent heated air from escaping.

Since the earthquake, there’s been a big public company about 節電 or saving energy. I’ve noticed very politely worded signs in retail spaces explaining that even during business hours, all of the lights aren’t necessarily going to be turned on, because of the need to save energy. Apparently people are fine to go along with this, so it makes me wonder if it’ll become a permanent way of doing retail lighting.

A raging debate in Japan since the earthquakes has been about whether to restart the nuclear plants or not. The dilemma as I understand it is that in spite of the ways that Japan saves energy, it is a rich country that nonetheless is used to consuming a lot of energy, and so without nuclear, the difference needs to be made up in other ways.

I’ve heard people talk endlessly about the wonders of renewable energy, but I have to question just how sustainable most “renewable energy” is. A positive side of renewable energy, to me, is that it pushes people to be more away of where their energy is coming from. Frankly the bonanza that the fossil fuel age has become so normalized that pretty much everyone has forgotten the huge impact it’s had on the comfort of our lives.

A negative side of renewable energy is that it’s generally a misnomer. For instance it takes serious amounts of energy, particularly high temperatures, to make a solar PV panel. I’ve heard in fact that the energy you put into making solar panel is roughly equal to what you eventually get out of it. So a solar PV panel is like a battery–put in fossil fuels, get out electricity via solar power. Not a bad idea, but not exactly renewable, either.

So what am I saying? An extreme form of conservation, to the point of re-engineering how pretty much everything is done, to the point where non-renewables are (practically?) never used is getting to be the only workable basis for a renewable society. I see a particular potential in Japan to be a leader in pioneering, or perhaps rediscovering, what this would look like.

For now, I see a handful of critical policies that Japan is following, that are on the right track:

  • Everything to do with individual driving is expensive. Gasoline, licensing, parking, toll roads, and on and on. $7/gallon gas anyone?
  • Massive investment in public transportation. If you want a mind blowing experience, go to Shinjuku station during the morning rush hour and watch train after train after train packed full of people go by. Wow there are so many people. Now imagine all of those people driving to work instead! All of that metal, that gasoline, the asphalt for the roads which would wear down, the increased air pollution.
  • Although the population of Japan is declining, I have yet to hear of a panicked government plan to somehow increase the population. It’s been pointed out that the Japanese society of the Edo period sustainably supported 30M people, without fossil fuels of course.
  • There are real actions being taken, real discussions happening, about saving energy. It’s not just a “nice to have” but people are really looking hard at it.
  • Japan has for many years looked at alternatives, including nuclear. Granted, it’s become apparent that nuclear is much more dangerous than previously thought, but in any case Japan appears less delusional about energy than the United States. Let’s just hope nobody finds shale oil under Japan’s agricultural land.

At the same time, Japan is no utopia of energy usage! Many visitors here notice:

  • Retail packaging is overdone. Yes the slice of cake you just bought is   wrapped, and then wrapped again, and then put in a box, and then wrapped, and then put in a bag, and looks amazing. But what for, and at what cost?
  • Gadget overload–there really is a gadget for everything here. Yes the US has been a big market for a lot of these gadgets. And Japan has more of them, and they are niftier. It is alluring.
  • Consumerism to the hilt. The advertising here is very, very well done, in your face, and relentless. It’s even easier here to buy things you don’t really need. I wonder how private debt is here? I do note lots of ads on the train for pay-day loan type products, at very high interest rates.
  • A throw-away culture. I don’t know if it still happens, but I know it used to be common for people to put their perfectly functional, relatively new, electronics out on the curb, to give away so they could make room for the newest and greatest.

Now having said all of this, my gut tells me that the “island nation” mentality of Japan is going to be an important asset as times change in the coming decades. The ability to pull together, to change direction as a nation relatively quickly, along with the current trend of declining population, could really make a difference for Japan getting to a sustainable state, much more quickly than other countries.

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