Green leaf floating above hand

There are few things as important as the issues of climate change and sustainability right now. In a way, these topics have become a unifier for people across the globe. Not because everyone feels the same about them but because they are discussed everywhere, and if nothing else, there is a collective awareness surrounding them. 

While most societies have measures in place to encourage sustainability and counter climate change, they look different depending on where you are. Not just the practical ways of everyday sustainability such as recycling, but also when it comes to the bigger picture of environmentally and socially sustainable values and how they are discussed and addressed — what role they play in a country’s culture at large. For those of us who move between different parts of the world, that means there is a lot to learn when arriving in a new place. 

And a common concern when moving abroad is indeed how to keep up a sustainable lifestyle. How does it work in the new place — how do you recycle, what kind of vehicles can you rent, are there incentives for buying an electric car? What energy alternatives are there? Is there a comprehensive public transport system? And, whether relocating or not, there is always the question of how to travel with minimal impact.

Having recently returned to California after spending a couple of months in Sweden, I have had reason to reflect on some of the differences you come across regarding how sustainability is addressed and “lived” in another country, and how it exists in the consciousness of people.

Recycling is a good example — it’s second nature to most of us by now. But how and what we recycle varies from country to country (and sometimes city to city). While it takes a little more work, I have come to appreciate the recycling system found in Sweden where you sort and take your recyclables to communal centers. There are specific bins for specific items. And because you are responsible for sorting your own stuff, I find that I am more aware of what I am using and how I am discarding it. In the town in California where I live, there is an “out of sight, out of mind” kind of effect, as paper, plastic, glass, etc. are all thrown into one big bin to be sorted off-site.

And, talking about traveling with minimal impact, this is something I think about often. There is an expression in Swedish, “Flygskam” (“flight shame” in English), that captures some of my feelings. It’s a word you hear often and the debate regarding the need to fly has been heated — in media and among people in general (although, the pandemic has halted the discussion a bit), with some vowing never to fly again, others proposing a sort of cap-and-trade system for individual aviation, and everything in between. In short, it’s an issue that evokes all kinds of emotions and ideas — pretty much everyone in the country has an opinion.

My feelings when it comes to flying are best described as conflicted. I have family on different continents, as well as on both coasts of the US. Like many expats, if I don’t fly, I don’t see family. And because my family is so spread out, I fly quite a bit. I know I’m not the only one tossing the question of flying (or not) around in my head without being able to come to a satisfactory solution. I usually land on “until there is a better way of traversing the planet, I’ll have to make do with such ‘solutions’ as paying for the carbon offset”, for example.  

It’s easy to feel hopeless when reading the news about climate change and sustainability. As individuals, we often feel powerless when it comes to creating what we think of as “real change”. But we all have the capacity to do something and doing something, even if it seems “small”, is real change. 

In addition, seeking out organizations or networks of like-minded people is a great way to work towards change, and as expats, this can also serve as an opportunity to make friends and get to know your community. Our abilities, conditions, and resources vary but the power is in our hands, individually and collectively. 

By: Felicia Shermis

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