Travel cultures and concepts of clean living
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

Bibek Debroy

We take off footwear before entering the house. We don’t readily shake hands. We wash hands frequently. These are worth thinking about before we follow the American dream.

I returned recently from a conference in the USA. Travel has its own pleasures and irritants, with irritants more for international travel than domestic—language (not in this case), adapters for electrical and electronic equipment, time differences, forex and payments, hotel check-ins and check-outs. For instance, in hotels in India, check-in and check-out are typically at noon. In India, and many parts of Asia, you will routinely get an early check-in at 10.00 am and a late check-out at 2.00 pm, with no extra charge. Forget the check-out. Throughout North America and Western Europe, you will be lucky if you are able to check-in before 2.00 pm.

Digital India has also spoiled us. Even if someone else is paying for your hotel, all hotels want a deposit for incidentals. In this particular hotel, my forex and credit cards didn’t work. (They worked elsewhere, so this was a hotel-specific problem.) Had it been India, I would have directly paid a deposit from my bank account—UPI, Paytm, whatever.

Perhaps because of the ubiquitous credit card, such payment methods are alien to the USA. Then there is the metric system, or its lack. Other than the USA, Liberia (influenced by the USA) and Myanmar are the only other countries that don’t use the metric system.

It makes a traveller’s life difficult. You want to know the temperature and you will have to mentally do the Fahrenheit to Centigrade conversion. Ditto for distance, height and weight. Of course, it isn’t a binary. Several countries have switched to metric for some purposes, but not for others. (Clothing and footwear are examples.) In the USA, a bottled soft drink will follow the metric system, but a can of the same stuff won’t. Both systems operate in parallel. US companies with overseas transactions will use metric abroad and non-metric at home.

Offhand, I cannot recall a single recent academic paper, published by an American economist in a refereed journal, that uses non-metric. The USA signed the Treaty of the Metre in 1875 and metric has been the preferred system for trade and commerce since 1988. (In the USA, the treaty will be written as the Treaty of the Meter. Those spelling differences don’t cause major transaction costs, though word-processing software may use the Americanized spelling by default. But in other cases, there are transaction costs.)

Why doesn’t the USA switch completely? Because there are switching costs for both business and individuals, and that’s a disincentive. Perversely, the parallel systems have removed some of the incentive to switch. Switching costs aren’t a convincing argument. When the numbering system for national highways was changed, didn’t road signage have to be redone? Had both continued in parallel, wouldn’t that have confused everyone?

On travel nuisances, there is the matter of toilet paper too. Depending on history, society and culture, toilet paper usage varies by country and is concentrated in North America, Western Europe, Australia and Japan, with China a relatively new entrant. I saw a map which gives toilet paper usage per lifetime, measured in miles (not kilometres). In the USA, it is a staggering 633.78 miles, surpassed only by Portugal. (In 2020, during Covid, there was a toilet paper shortage and mad rush in many countries.) Of course, bidets have become fairly common in Western Europe and Japan. In December 2009, there was a story in Scientific American, titled Wipe or Wash? Do Bidets Save Forest and Water Resources? A long quote from this is worth it:

“Justin Thomas, editor of the website, considers bidets to be “a key green technology” because they eliminate the use of toilet paper. According to his analysis, Americans use 36.5 billion rolls of toilet paper every year, representing the pulping of some 15 million trees. Thomas says: ‘This also involves 473,587,500,000 gallons of water to produce the paper and 253,000 tons of chlorine for bleaching.’ He adds that manufacturing requires about 17.3 terawatts of electricity annually and that significant amounts of energy and materials are used in packaging and in transportation to retail outlets. To those who say that bidets waste water, advocates counter that the amount is trivial compared to how much water we use to produce toilet paper in the first place. Biolife Technologies, manufacturer of the high-end line of Coco bidets, says the amount of water used by a typical bidet is about 1/8th of a gallon, with the average toilet using about four gallons per flush. Lloyd Alter of the website reports that making a single roll of toilet paper requires 37 gallons of water, 1.3 kilowatt/hours (KWh) of electricity and some 1.5 pounds of wood. Thomas points out that toilet paper is also a public nuisance in that it clogs pipes and adds a significant load onto city sewer systems and water treatment plants.”

Add to that the greater danger of infections with toilet paper. At the time of Covid, no one has satisfactorily explained greater immunity in India. We do take off our footwear before entering the house. We don’t readily shake hands. We wash our hands frequently. We don’t use infected cutlery. These are worth thinking about before we follow the American dream.

Hotels in Europe will often have bidets, not in the USA. Therefore, unless I immediately had a shower, I felt unclean. I met a group of NRIs and OCIs (US citizens). They have done well in the USA, as Indian professional groups usually do, and are eager to know more about the new India and do their little bit to repay the homeland. (It is a different matter that they remember India as they had left it, not as it is today.) The favourite area to pay back was climate change. We went back and forth on climate change, the 2015 Paris Agreement, SDGs, carbon neutrality, renewable energy, international solar alliance, figures on emissions and vulnerability (say India) versus responsibility (say USA).

In other words, we traversed the entire gamut of negotiating positions and arguments and counter-arguments. Since we went round and round in circles, I eventually remarked, “Why don’t you lobby for elimination of toilet paper usage in the USA? It will help the cause of the environment enormously.” There was shock and pin-drop silence. Stated on the spur of the moment, I think it is a good idea. There should be a proper research paper, not merely journalistic reporting, on toilet paper costs.

(The writer is the Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM)

(courtesy: The new Indian Express)