Standing in my grandparents’ kitchen at a family gathering on a sunny winter’s day in Iowa I overheard my uncle ask my cousin, who was around my age, the seemingly simple question: “So where are you living right now?” I cringed, grateful that I wouldn’t be the one to have to muster up a succinct answer. As a young adult, this is a rather difficult question that leaves me reflecting on something that is supposed to be an integral part of my identity: where I live. I perked up my ears in anticipation of my cousin’s answer, eager to hear how he would respond. His reply was a simple “it depends.”
Upon hearing this reply I began to reflect on my own lifestyle and, more recently, on what this means for the environment.
Like my cousin, it depends. In the summer I live with my family in my hometown of Westford, MA, a suburb north of Boston. During past semesters at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), I lived in residence halls on a rural campus with thousands of other students. This year I live alone in a small apartment in bustling Munich. With these changes in location come new lifestyles, and in each home I develop new perspectives on how I can and ultimately want to live my life in relation to the environment.In each of these locations my modes of transportation are different, and I have different relationships with food (i.e., grocery shopping, cooking, and food waste). Though my lifestyle may be transient, my impacts on the environment are everlasting, and a worthy topic of reflection.
In Westford, a car is needed to get just about everywhere. Even though my summer workplace is only around four kilometers from my house, I commute using a car. There is traffic on the roads, and the 15-centimeter-wide bike shoulder is so covered in sand that I don’t feel comfortable cycling or walking, despite it being so close. At UNH, I can walk to any part of campus in under 20 minutes. If I want to go into town for a change of scenery, I can hop on one of the buses run by my school’s transportation system. I haven’t had a car there for the past two years, and though my destination options have been slightly limited, I’ve managed just fine. In contrast to my two homes in the US, the choices for people without cars in Munich seem endless. Nearly every corner of the city is accessible by foot, bus, tram, U-Bahn, S-Bahn, or bicycle. No car? No problem.
My relationship with food is a harder comparison to make. For the past two years at UNH I was on a meal plan that consisted of unlimited access to all three dining halls—as a resident in dorms, “unlimited” was the most basic plan offered. Although I would generally eat every last bite of the food I took, others would leave plenty on their plates. It was disturbing to see what I consider the most negative consequence of an unlimited meal plan every day: the amount of food wasted. In Westford, my relationship with food is more relatable to most. I buy ingredients at the supermarket, local farm stands, or the weekly farmers’ market. Last summer I even tried my hand at growing some of my own herbs, including basil, cilantro, rosemary, and sage. My love for cooking bode well for my family; I made many meals and enjoyed sharing my creations with people I love. Food waste was always considered, and while it helped to have four hungry and willing eaters in the house it was still a challenge to ensure that no leftovers were wasted. Items often were pushed to the back of the fridge like old toys, as new and more interesting food items took their place.
Living alone in Munich, however, I try to minimize my own food waste as much as possible. It took some time to get used to buying smaller quantities of food. On my second day here I bought a three-kilogram bag of carrots—I clearly had some adjusting to do. I try to keep a mental note of everything in the fridge to make sure nothing sneaks past its use-by date, and make sure not to cook so much of one dish that I get sick of it—as delicious as homemade chili is, it sure loses its appeal after the fourth night in a row. I compost here too, and I think this is largely due to it being a habit from home, as well as the fact that the compost bins in my apartment make its disposal so convenient. Although I’ve mostly adjusted to my new relationship with food, living alone and in a new country I still struggle to decide where to buy my groceries—the options here are endless. Aldi is cheap and has some products that I like; supermarkets sell most items at a higher quality than the discount stores; the organic stores are slightly more expensive; and places like Viktualienmarkt and Elisabethmarkt are even more expensive, but far more personal and fun.
By coming to Munich I realized that one’s lifestyle and relationship with the environment is spatially determined—one must work with the resources available in the area and culture in which they live. In each of my three homes, I have a different lifestyle and a different relationship with the environment because I need to adapt to the conditions of each location. By experiencing this transient lifestyle, not only have I observed different means of surviving as a young adult but I have lived different lifestyles. This is disorienting at times, but answering the question “Where are you living?” with “it depends” does not mean that I am lost, confused, or missing a key piece of my identity, as I previously thought. Rather, it means that I have had the opportunity to live in multiple locations on this planet and open my eyes to some of the countless ways of living. Humans share one planet, yet the ways in which people of varying cultures relate to the environment are vastly different. As we look for ways to live more sustainably in relation to our environment, we must not not idolize one lifestyle or blame and shame another—there is no single environmental hero. Though many of our lifestyles may be transient, our environmental impacts are not. Having some kind of impact is inevitable, but by living in multiple places and learning about different cultures I believe we can learn a great deal, and make better-informed, well-rounded decisions on how best to leave our mark on Earth.
Laurianne Posch is Assistant Editor at the RCC, and a student of German and International Affairs at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), USA. She is spending her junior year of college in Munich. Laurianne assists the RCC editors in proofreading articles, offers language editing to Carson Fellows, uses her German skills to translate text, and lends a hand wherever she can to the editing team.