The Road to a Green City: Fieldnotes from a Canadian Living Abroad

Guest blogger: Tim Higgs, Lead Coordinator, Conference of Youth 6

My name is Tim and I come from a small town called Newmarket, Ontario, about 40 minutes north of Toronto. More than 4 years ago I left home to live abroad in Germany and later moved to Taiwan. I wanted a different perspective on the world and I wanted to learn what it is to think and live in a different way.

At home in Toronto I worked for an NGO and for a company contracted by City of Toronto to do environmental programming for the water efficiency department. It was these jobs that gave me the experience of working in environmentalism. I took that experience with me when I left home and very quickly it began to colour the way I looked at the places I was living.

It seems – as I observed – that neither the average German nor the average Taiwanese think about the environment much in their daily lives. At least, not in the same way we do in Canada. I’ll explain why.

In Germany, environmentalism is built into culture, into the very infrastructure of their society. Recycling is an old habit and bike lanes exist even in the smallest of towns; they’re nothing new. Solar cells and wind generators cover their neighbours’ roofs and dot the horizon. It doesn’t raise eyebrows when new ones are erected.

Yes, Germans don’t think much about environmentalism in their day to day because they already are environmental. Energy efficiency is woven into the fabric of their society so tightly that no one would think to question it or praise. Not in their day to day at least.

Taiwanese don’t think about it but for a different reason. It’s not yet a part of their culture, though good signs are everywhere that it’s beginning to seep in. The infrastructure has begun to appear in the city I live in, Kaohsiung, the second largest city, but the mentality of conservation is still lacking. If someone tosses garbage on the road, no one speaks up, if a business has their doors wide open with the air conditioning blasting all day, it’s normal.

The Taiwanese modern economy is still a young one, and as such the thought of using less and being as efficient as possible has yet to take hold. And having some of the cheapest petrol in Asia isn’t helping. But given time and a lot of effort, I’m convinced that that tipping point of collective consciousness is just around the corner.

Canada, on the other hand, is a different case altogether. Two years ago I returned home to visit just in time for a national election and I heard the oddest thing coming from the news stations: Green News!

At the time I’d left, it was a side issue, something to be considered after all other things had been considered. But for some reason, it had rocketed to the top of political priorities And had it not been for the sudden onset of economic crisis, it would’ve decided the outcome of those elections.

I remember back in university feeling like I had to convince my parents that climate change was real; now it seems that knowledge is academic. I remember back then feeling like I was sidelining myself financially for choosing environmentalism as a career, now my career looks bright.

Canadians, it seems, think about it a lot now because the realization has set in that our country, our cities and rural areas are not the hubs of energy efficiency they could be. We’ve realized that mass transit is important, which is why it is now a major issue in Toronto politics. We understand that it means saving money as well as carbon, which is an argument climate skeptics simply can’t stand up against. And most importantly, people like my parents, average people, are thinking about it on a daily basis as it’s spread across the news. In fact, my dad regularly sends me articles from the Toronto Sun.

When I look around I see everyone moving in the same direction as governments and people alike realize that conservation can bring economic gain in ways that pollution can’t. Different countries and different cultures are on the same road but at difference stages in the race to become green.

It’s encouraging to see, but when I look at Germany, my home country of Canada and where I live now, Taiwan, I realize that there’s still a long way to go.

But at least now we have a road map.

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