Knowing bitter melon and global warming (知行合一)

Schoolby Leanne Ogasawara

It was 2011. I knew it wasn't going to be easy moving back in with my mom after all those years away. Two decades was a long time and now I had a little boy in tow.

But at least it was home, I thought.

My son would be going to the public elementary school I attended. He hardly spoke any English at all and couldn't read or write his own name, so he was a bit nervous on his first day. I decided to walk him over to make sure he found the room okay and didn't have any communication issues.

And it was the strangest thing. The suburban streets on the way to school were lined with big cars like the cars the secret service drives in the movies. Big and heavy-looking, they were everywhere. Wondering if something was happening, I asked in the office about it, but was told nothing special was happening that day. Then, later I told my mom about it only to be informed that no, those were the parents' cars of the kids being dropped off at school. She told me that everyone now in our neighborhood drove large minivans and SUVs. She hated the cars and hated what had become a big traffic jam every morning because of what she called "the drop off line."

So, let me get this straight, I thought. In the past twenty years, while people in Japan or Germany have been making use of light, fuel-efficient cars and public transportation, parents in the US started buying big cars to drive their kids to school everyday and wait in line while the car idle. Isn't that illegal? What about the bus?

Of all the things that I found myself unable to adjust to on my return, maybe the biggest shock of all was how little has changed in terms of the environment. Wait, let me rephrase that. people are talking about it a lot more. Maybe even talking in inverse proportion to lack of doing anything. A few things have gotten better but in general the consumption patterns are so much worse than I had even remembered. Today's hyper-consumerism: for me that is the bottom line.

In 1999, I saw statistics in a book written by the Union of Concerned Scientists on the environmental impact of consumer choices that showed that the average American is twice as hard on the environment as those consumers in Continental Europe and four times that of the Japanese. I remember feeling really horrified by that. How, I wondered, could one country so shamelessly consume so much more than their fair share? Living in Japan, where so much has been done to lessen environmental impact over the past twenty years, I assumed the US would also have stepped up. Right? Well, according to this recent article in the Guardian, the depressing statistics remain.

Right now, our planet only has enough resources for each of us to consume 1.8 “global hectares” annually – a standardized unit that measures resource use and waste. This figure is roughly what the average person in Ghana or Guatemala consumes. By contrast, people in the US and Canada consume about 8 hectares per person, while Europeans consume 4.7 hectares – many times their fair share.

If that doesn't make you feel angry, then I don't know what will.


That the issue is being politicized (or worse, seen in terms of individual "personal expression") is a big stumbling block to real action on the grassroots level. Of course, it does matter who is in the White House, but it's not as if this problem suddenly started with the start of the current administration and I would argue, international agreements that lack teeth only go so far into addressing the changes tat need to be made to the current paradigm. Or put a different way, the corporations that control our government are not going to change unless we make business as usual unviable for them. Like we have seen in Portland, and like we are now seeing in California, if we citizens show we can think outside the corporate box, city and state government will respond and this can lead to change! Real change often begins on the local level –and this must start with our own lives.

Thesis: Top-down government leadership is necessary to enact laws and policies that address systemic problems to decrease our carbon impact. Because the US lacks top-down leadership and is instead ruled by corporate interest, if consumers do not vote with their wallets and force corporations to change, the government will never change. It is ass-backward but there it is. → Concrete steps below.


In Ming Dynasty China, there was an interesting Neo-Confucian philosopher called Wang YangMing. Master Wang was famous for his unusual epistemology. The unity of knowledge and action (知行合一) says in a nutshell, “If you want to know bitterness, you have to eat a bitter melon yourself.” No other knowledge is possible. All we know is what we do. And what we do is all we can know.

To approach the issue you would, I think, have to work well outside a Cartesian mind-body duality since philosophers after Descartes have been open to the notion of a disembodied mind. But let's say you think, like Master Wang (and me) that knowledge is always something *embodied* and therefore in this radical de-emphasis of the thinking-action divide, all knowledge is– as embodied– also an action. So, in this way, as some philosophers have suggested, this pushes beyond Ryle's "know-that" versus "know-how," to say that all Confucian knowing is a knowing-to.


With "doing" in mind, I want to recommend a new book on climate change and making a difference.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has a new book out about low carbon living.

I really recommend the book, which urges every single person to reduce their own impact by 20% the first year. It gives very practical methods for doing this, which are surprisingly easy.

The main point is you aim for a 20% reduction in carbon and you can much more easily do this by reviewing and making changes to your habits in the BIG THREE areas: 1) Cars 2) Beef 3) Home heating and aircon.

(If you don't believe in carbon, no problem, you can just aim for environmental protection through less plastic).

20% is not enough of course– but it is a doable first-year goal. And it is almost too easy to make a plan if you address the above three high-impacting areas (if you make a lot of small, less impactful changes, it will be harder to hit the 20%)

I'll tell you my plan but everyone will have to figure out their own approach since everyone's situation is so different. We live in LA and it is hard to survive without a car. But we are committed to only ever having one fuel-efficient car. My plan is that starting early next year, we will employ the Union of Concerned Scientists' "2 mile rule." We won't use the car for any trips under two miles in the daytime. The union of concerned scientists suggested three miles and didn't stipulate day or night.

Baby steps, baby steps.

More important in our case is we are going to look into a more efficient air con. Our aircon is a zone type so we never actually heat or cool the entire house but it is a very old system. A new system would drastically cut down our impact. When I look at our current behaviors this is without a doubt the major issue. The book talks a lot about the impact of inefficient systems. We don't shop from chain stores or big box stores at all, but we do use Amazon. I am going to try and only hit "buy now" once a month to cut the consumerism by 20% there. This will be challenging for me because of my addiction to books. The other biggie is food. We only eat "happy cows" when we eat beef and same for poultry, but I will plan to seriously increase our vegetarian days to bring meat down to once or twice a week max. Those are the biggies… beef and fossil fuels. Food is especially tough since if a person's veganism is made up of monocrops that is also a huge problem for so many reasons relating to soil health and petrochemicals. I recommend reading the book Vegetarian Myth (with a grain of salt since it will challenge your notions on the issues). In fact, I think industrialized food is the toughest nut to crack because it has become so all-pervasive.

Other forms of shopping are much easier to tackle. I've had good luck with a refurbished iphone and try really hard not to purchase things from big box stores at all… I buy a great part of my clothing and other things used on ebay and prefer it that way.

Over the years, I have repeatedly emailed the schools where my son goes to ask them to forbid idling cars (that must be illegal!) and 100% forbid plastic water bottles (as in japan)–to bring back buses and water fountains to schools. Bike racks…. Nothing was achieved except they did fix the water fountains at the elementary school finally. But, he now goes to a public school with no bus available. I think that is what happens if parents don't support existing school buses… they go away. Kids are safer and healthier on the bus. Remember, we want our kids to have independence so that they will be capable of solving problems! [Fact-free parenting and riding the bus]

All of the above is said in in full recognition that people can only do what they can do. I have had a period in my life where for financial reasons I could never have aimed at much more than 20% because I was so financially strapped. And isn't it ironic (and so pathetic) that it takes money to do a lot of this?

I just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel, New York 2140. The book takes place after climate change has brought three periods of disaster to the planet. The future is all about rising sea levels and devastating inequality. It is a very convincing portrait of a possible scenario of things to come. The water levels create a New York that is wonderfully reminiscent of Venice –with vaporetto and water taxis, frozen canals and sky towers that rise out of the waters in the Bay. But the inequality is such that many can no longer read. The 1% control everything and the rabble (yes, that is us) must make do. The book contains short but very cutting commentary about a human species that at every turn chose selfish financial gains (on quarterly profits) over the sustainability of our planet and the people living on the planet. And even after a complete collapse, people keep doing things the same way–with the wealthy taking the lion's share of the wealth and the rest of the people feeling helpless to do anything. Unions are weak as ever and not only does "greater good" not include the animals or the soil but it doesn't even include 99% of the people. Yes, this is persuasive.

But there is a big surprise. This is a utopian novel. You expect a dystopian novel…. not least given the subject matter but people are still people and kindness does win in this novel. I am more persuaded by dystopian visions and yet found this book really almost heart-warming. In the end, the rabble strike back. How? By general strikes, non-payments to the banks en masse of student loans and mortgages –and the immediate stopping of nonessential consumer purchases to cripple the business model.

History was happening. When that happens you can feel it.

So, a positive note to kick of 2018, I wanted to share this list of local California achievements

New state laws that will took effect on January 1st
1. First year of community college will be free for all new students (must be full time)
2. Recreational marijuana legal to purchase
3. Vehicle registration will cost $25 to $175 more based on the value of your car
4. Minimum wage up to $11 per hour
5. Sanctuary State law will limit local cooperation/resources with ICE
6. Guns banned at all public schools even for those with concealed carry permits
7. All ammunition purchases (or pickups) must be made in person
8. Gender identity no longer a requirement on IDs
9. Baby changing tables will be required in all restrooms, including men's
10. Pet stores will only be able to sell rescue animals (sp. dogs, cats, rabbits)
11. Employers will no longer be able to ask for your salary/benefits history, and must provide a pay-scale for the job upon request
12. Wearing a seat belt on buses will become mandatory for those with seat belts. Buses carrying children aged 8-16 must provide seat belts
13. Free tampons and pads must be in at least half of all restrooms in public schools that serve low-income areas (defined as 40% poverty or more)

Here is to working together on the local level!!!


My Top Reads of 2017 (Death in the Anthropocene; Vegetarian Myth, New York 2140, Are we Deranged?)

Global Warming Part One at 3Quarks here: The Sound of Lotus Blossoming