Monday, March 10, 2008

What is Mottainai anyway?

2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai re-discovered the Japanese word "Mottainai". By the way, I was lucky to be at Dr. Maathai's lecture when she came over to California last year. Such a smart, strong, empowering woman of dignity. I was totally impressed.

"Mottainai" is translated into "what a waste" or "don't be wasteful". Until re-discovered by Dr. Maathai, Mottainai was rather a grandma's saying or one of those old-fashioned virtues. If you were to toss the food you couldn't finish, your grandma would say "Mottainai, you still can eat it or your cat will!" If you are throwing your cloths away because they are totally out of fashion, she would say "Mottainai, we still can wear it or use it!". If you keep your tap water running while chatting, she would come and say "Mottainai, shut it off!" Basically, "Mottainai" was the word to remind you that what you are wasting still retain some residual value which needed to be used again.

Mottainai, in one sense, is a symbolic word that describes Japan's poor days (probably up until 1950) where people couldn't afford to waste anything. Food, fossil fuel, textile, metals......nothing was abundantly available.

When Japan started see a tremendous economic growth after 1950, we rapidly started to forget about "Mottainai" because we were suddenly surrounded by plenty of stuff. We no longer needed to feel "Mottainai". We were free to toss anything that were once recovered....and now considered waste.

Then, why can one country once poor be now so rich in materials?

Japan does not have much resources on its soil. When we used to live with whatever we had, we were materially poor. Just simply, economic growth made it possible to import huge amount of resources from other countries. What makes our lives rich now mostly come from other regions! If, for some reason, we have to go back to the situation where no import is available, "Mottainai", once again, will be a call to survive.

Import is as if we are borrowing resources from other countries or from environment, especially when those countries are suffering from poverty, or we are degrading environment. If we try to re-distribute the resources fairly (such as fair-trade or conservation), resource flow would be totally different from what we see today.

Mottainai reminds me how unfairly or unsustainably the resources are distributed right now. If the resources are fairly or sustainably distributed, no one on earth would have luxury not feel Mottainai.....

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