Tuesday, October 16, 2007

After that...

Yesterday morning I woke up very dissatisfied. I had been working on a piece for Blog Action Day for weeks. I had chosen the topic of public transportation in Vientiane. It’s quite a loaded subject, and there are lots of ins and outs to the subject. However, on the morning of Oct 15, I decided I did not like what I had written. I decided to step away from the topic of public transportation and write something new. Something with a bit more of a bite.

Sometimes when I am writing I use the computer. Other times, I sit down with a stack of paper and write things out long hand. Yesterday, I chose the long hand approach. During the course of the day, I scratched out mental notes, key statistics and partial paragraphs freely. All together, I think I used about 12 pieces of paper. Early in the afternoon, I started converting the paper draft to a computer format. Finishing much later than I should, I began to tidy up.

When working with a computer, a quick stroke of the delete or backspace key takes away anything that might be a bit too racy for the censors. However, working with ink and paper, it’s a different story. I stood in my living room with a dozen sheets of paper – some of the words I wrote (but of course did not publish) would put me in the clink for quite a while.

The surest way to destroy anything written on paper is by fire. So, I headed out to the yard with a lighter and the incriminating sheets. Dropping them into the burn barrel, I had to laugh. On a day I dedicate my blog to environmental awareness, I end up standing in my yard burning paper and branches in an open fire.

I could not help but laugh and chide myself for the irony of the situation.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Gin nuai look

My observations in Laos over the past year and a half have been culturally and historically focused and not specifically environmental. As such, I would like to speak on the cultural side of addressing environmental concerns in Laos and other emerging nations.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a Southeast Asian nation bordered by Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and China. It is currently rated as a “least developed nation”; a stigma Laos has committed to removing by the year 2020. 70% of the population in Laos lives on less than $2 per day and 20% percent live on less than $1 per day. Of the approximately 7 million residents, less than 20% live in urban areas – roughly growing at 4% to 5% each year. It is, for the most part, an undeveloped, jungle or agrarian landscape throughout the country. The largest environmental issues are deforestation with a dramatic drop of forested areas from 70% in 1940 to 47% in 1989, and the impacts of hydroelectric dams which contribute significantly to the total revenue from exports.

At a national level, the big issues are known and are getting attention, however, at the individual level, things in Laos are a bit more complex and difficult to address. At the heart of the matter, most people don’t know what they should do and more importantly they don’t have the means to do so.

Meet Bounsong

Bounsong lives in an unfinished concrete home on the outskirts of Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. He has a wife and two small children. He supports his family doing whatever work he can find. Mostly his work is farm-related. Sometimes, his wife and children will pick mushrooms in the jungle and sell them in the market. After it rains, he and his cousin go out to collect frogs, also destined for the market. Last year, his household income was $525 US, higher than the national average.

In Bounsong’s home, there is no running water, no electricity and no gas for cooking. For light, they use kerosene lanterns, for cooking they use charcoal logs. They buy potable water in 20 liter bottles. Other water for household use is drawn from a shallow well in the back yard. Also in the yard, 10 meters from the well, is a twenty year old outhouse, still in use. There are no municipal waste collection services in Bounsong’s village. Instead, his wife burns the household refuse in a barrel out back. Whatever can’t be burned, they dump in an empty lot a few doors down.

Bounsong is fortunate. He owns a motorbike. It’s nothing fancy but the 1979 two stroke engine still runs, even though the exhaust is a thick black smoke. He doesn’t have a driver’s license (or birth certificate, identification card or passport for that matter) and he can not afford a helmet for each of his family members while they all ride together to the market.

Bounsong is a fictional character, but this depiction is no exaggeration of the average citizen in his area. The simple truth is, life in Laos is pretty tough, and for people like Bounsong, there is neither time nor financing to do anything about people call "the environment".

The Global Environment

The phrase “the environment” has, over the past century, morphed into quite a buzzword. To many people “the environment” includes all things from fossil fuel addiction to cloth diapers to photosensitive, degradable plastic bags. To others, myopic tendencies come into play; one might think only of urban green space percentages; another might feel greatest danger coming from off-shore dumping; a third might distress over their child’s relentless allergies and dedicate their life to promoting organic legume and tuber cultivation. In truth, the environment is all these things – a great multitude of things. Contemplate that thought for a moment and you may draw the conclusion that it is not just a multitude of things; it is the multitude of all things.

True, the environment is our physical surroundings. It is also the impact of outside forces (our society for example) on those physical surroundings. And the environment is also our perception – our individual, constant mind-state – of our surroundings. What we think and what we feel is at the root of all things which we do. How we feel about our life, our jobs, our neighbors, our country, our enemies, has a profound influence on what we do about our environment. The sum total of our life situation is, in fact, our environment.

Let’s put our feet back down on the ground for a moment.

Back With Bounsong

Ask Bounsong what he thinks about the environment and you are likely to get a very confused look. Ask him about deforestation, and he might grimace; his uncle in the north can no longer practice slash and burn cultivation, so now they are very poor and ask him for money. Ask about rubbish removal and most probably there will be little comprehension of how or why. Tell Bounsong to have his motorbike inspected for NO2, SO2, and PM10 emissions and, like most citizens, he will nod his head in agreement but in practice simply avoid all police checkpoints for the next couple weeks until the matter is forgotten, entirely.

For Bounsong, matters of the environment are intangibles. It’s not that Bounsong doesn’t care, it’s just not relevant. These concerns mean as much to him as what type of adhesive should be used to affix ceramic tiles to the bottom of the space shuttle. Bounsong is just as likely fix his motorbike as he is likely to go to the moon.

Bounsong cares about it, of course. He cares about the environment very much, after all, he is a farmer. He is also a sensitive man, a family man. And he wants his children to have better lives than he has. He wants to leave behind for his grandchildren a plot of land which they can farm and he wants them to be healthy. If that means that he has to spend 100% of his annual income on a used motorbike, ok, but first, Bounsong has some other concerns.

In the region where he lives, infant mortality is second only to Cambodia, His wife is pregnant with their third child so he needs to set a little aside for that and he’s a bit nervous because maternal mortality is also pretty high, statistically speaking that is. His own life expectancy has climbed from 51 to 59 years of age, so that’s almost a full decade for him to work off any debt he may incur, unless he gets sick. In the past year, one relative has died from tuberculosis, another from malaria, a niece and a nephew were lost to dengue fever and a woman he used to know lost 3 relatives to bird flu. That was last year. Aside from that, only 12 of his 29 male cousins use methamphetamines on a daily basis – he’s not sure about the 4 in prison. What Bounsong also doesn’t know is that his son will die in a motorbike accident at the age of twelve. Two years after that, his daughter will turn to prostitution at the age of 15 to help pay for her father’s medical bills and subsequent burial costs.

I’m sorry; you were saying something about what’s coming out of Bounsong's tailpipe?

The Delicate Subject

We know that Bounsong is not a malicious or vindictive man. We know he would happily fix his only form of transportation if he could. But we also know that he’s got bigger problems. He lives in a world where for 59 years he will be struggling to get enough food to eat, fresh water to drink and a place to sleep. After that, he will catch a curable disease and die. All of this will happen, whether or not he changes that exhaust pipe.

I would like to think that some eccentric philanthropist will drop in on Southeast Asia and donate a bunch of environmentally friendly motorbikes, about 200 million would be a good start. Maybe Honda, in its dedication and commitment to solving global warming issues will exchange any competitors’ product with a new 100% electric motorbike. Maybe the government, who struggles to find financing for basic waste water treatment, will plop down a few billion dollars to convert all of its citizen’s motorbikes to consume clean burning alternative fuels. This will all happen as soon as Bounsong returns safely from the moon.

It comes down to money and priorities. For Bounsong, and for that matter, the entire the world population, immediate survival ranks highest among all else. Hunger will always win over the environment. If a human being needs to step on something in order to eat, they will do exactly that. For struggling nations trying to put themselves on the map, they too want a population who has been fed, even if the truck that carried the rice spit out black smoke to deliver it. It doesn't have to be this way, but the brutal fact of the matter, that's the way it is right now. In situations where a country or a person has the resources, of course, they need to focus some attention preserving the world for the future, after they have preserved themselves. The act of environmental preservation is not isolated in monitoring greenhouse gas emissions. It goes far deeper than that. It reaches into our daily habits, our spirituality, our feeling of freedom and our sense of being. Protecting the environment reaches it's deepest and most core essence always in the same place: the stomach of every single person on this planet.

As a person concerned about how we are impacting the environment, take a look at the numbers of people in this world failing to feed their family, the numbers of people dying from disease, war and starvation. Find out what is the source of those struggles. Take a candid look at what is imposing such insurmountable challenges for basic life and sustenance? What is behind that? There, you may find the answer for what is harming our environment the most.