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Saving The Environment Begins With A Handkerchief

Chiu-Nan Lai, PH.D

When I was young, I used to carry a handkerchief in my pocket for wiping perspiration and my hands. Since attending high school in the States, tissues began to replace my handkerchief. Only those who love outdoor activities or sportsman use handkerchiefs.

Few years ago, an Australian doctor mentioned that Dioxane, a very toxic chemical, is produced when manufacturing and bleaching paper. This chemical has heavily damaged the earth and created many health problems. Dioxane can cause injuries to the central nervous system, cause the death of liver and kidney, damage the skin and lungs, and cause cancer. This doctor produced her handkerchief to demonstrate a way of protecting the environment. She explained that using the handkerchief to wipe the nose is hygienic as bacteria will not survive once the cloth is dried. A handkerchief could be used many times before being washed.

After learning this, I started to use the handkerchief again; the big squarish kind that is normally used for mountaineering. Initially I was not used to it, but it soon became a habit. I have not bought tissues for the past few years and do not feel the need for it. It is indeed very wasteful and environmentally unhealthy to have tissues being used so widely. This little handkerchief incident makes one realize that environmental protection and pollution is only a matter of changing habits. If we only spend a little more time to reflect on the consequences of our daily habits and choose a way that treats the environment with care, we could improve the environment we live in and avoid future calamities.

Food shortage is one of the many calamities we may face. Those living in industrialized countries could hardly imagine the pressure created from the scarcity of the earth’s resources such as water and land when agricultural nations enter into industrialization. In China particularly, when there is a population of 1.2 billion, when the nation begins to drive cars, consume meat and eggs, drink beer, the effect on the earth is nothing less than a catastrophe.

In 1988, Lester Brown from the Worldwatch Institute observed that when the densely populated agricultural countries progress towards industrialization, they can no longer be self-sufficient in producing food and have to rely on imports. This is due to the sacrifice of cropland for industries and roads. As their economy develop, the nation’s diet increases in variety; more will consume eggs and poultry products, ice cream, beer, etc. Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam are amongst the most densely populated countries and have developed into industrialized nations over the past thirty years. Statistics in 1994 showed that 72% of Japan’s food consumption were imported, Vietnam, 62% and Taiwan, 76%. When China becomes fully developed, food shortage could be predicted. Brown wrote an article “Who will feed China?” in 1994. Looking at the rate of food consumption in China, there is not one country which could satisfy its needs. For the period 1993 to 1994, China exported 8 million tons of grains. However, by 1994/1995, it imported 1.46 million tons of grains. In actual fact, its grain insufficiency was more than reported. However, to stabilize the increasing price of grains, the China government released its grain reserves. Projecting its demand, China would have to import 3 to 4 billion tons of grains by the year 2030; twice the amount of today’s total world export. Currently, there are ten developing countries relying on food import. Using the current rate of population increase, food import in 2030 will be the total of the world’s export in 1994. In addition, more countries such as India, Iran, Pakistan, Mexico are also increasing their reliance on import. We are facing a serious food shortage.

The world’s population of grain is hampered by the scarcity of irrigated agricultural land. The increase in the world’s population leads to an increased demand for food which will widen the gap between supply and demand. There are two solutions to this problem. We could either limit population growth or advocate environment protection via our diet, i.e., consuming grains and legumes as staple food together with greens and fruits. The reason for China’s conversion from an exporting to an importing nation is that with its increase in per capita income and with affluence, there is more meat consumption. Meat consumption increased from 8kg per person in 1973 to 32kg per person in 1994. Its total consumption is more than that in the United States. Besides, the government of China has encouraged increased consumption of eggs from the current 100 per head to 200 per head by the year 2000. This is very close to the 235 eggs per head in America. The target of rearing 13 billion chickens and the demand for 24 billion tons of grains is equivalent to Canada’s current total annual export.

In addition, beer consumption has increased tremendously. If everyone in China consumes a bottle of beer, 370 thousand tons of grains will be required. Production volume was 1 billion liters in 1981 and this has increased thirteen folds by 1994. China’s beer consumption is now more than that of Germany and second only to America. When we realize that our daily habit can either result in calamity or safety, we will choose to use the handkerchief instead of tissues, drink water instead of beer, take grains, vegetables, and fruits instead of meat, poultry, and dairy products. Should we create an Earth with enough food for each and every one, or one where only some has plenty to eat while others die of hunger?

The choice is ours. It begins with the use of a handkerchief, from a mouthful of rice, or a glass of water.