Christine and I have just spent 10 days teaching in Thailand, and are now settling into life at the University of Western Australia for 4 months. Here, we share some impressions on our journey so far, and reflections on the challenge of responding to climate change.
We stayed at the Wongsanit Ashram, near Bangkok, Thailand. It is the headquarters of the Spirit in Education Movement which is engaged with issues of sustainability and social change. Their diverse programmes include Ecovillage Design Education, teaching Laotion Buddhist monks about the modern world and Thai youth about the importance of Buddhist values, helping remote hill tribes to plan for their future, and assisting Burmese refugees displaced by the Tsunami.
Situated 1.5 hours from central Bangkok, the ashram is an oasis of peace in a seething hive of 12m people. We’d never been to one of the mega-cities of the majority world before, and it was quite an eye-opener on the trips we took out of the Ashram. First impressions on leaving the vast new international airport terminal are of endless freeways and spaghetti junctions. In places, the subsiding switchback of old road is overshadowed by the elevated tollway for the rich, and paralleled by the rotting concrete of unfinished schemes – monuments to past corruption.
At major junctions, nestled amongst the grey strands of spaghetti, are huge shopping malls, such as Future Park which has just announced plans to create a patch of ‘rainforest’ for the delight of its customers. Never before have I seen a supermarket with 53 checkouts, and this looked small compared to the Tesco Lotus across the road – yes, that archetypal British model of an aggressive multinational seems set to add dominance of Thai retailing to its crown.
Consumerism is not only alive and well in Bangkok, it’s booming. I haven’t been in the USA recently, but I suspect it’s lost the title of king of the giant billboards. Everywhere you look, the landscape is dominated by the brash drive to sell and the urgent desire to buy. And yet amongst the smaller shops and stalls, the sellers are not importunate. They watch and wait patiently, and only come forward to encourage those who seem interested.
The meteoric rise of consumerism is epitomised by the vehicles that clog the roads. Apart from a remnant of tuk-tuks and pedicabs, everyone seems either to ride a jazzily-styled scooter, or to drive a shiny big Toyota. Noticeable by their absence are old cars and the mini models so popular in European cities.
This blatant exhibition of new-found wealth sits side by side with inequalities far larger than those in the west. Shacks surrounded by garbage sit side by side with nouveau-riche mansions. Pavement sellers spread their pitiful wares outside glitzy shops, as blind beggars shuffle through the crowds. And pedicab riders move painfully amongst the teeming cars.
Inevitably, we found ourselves wondering how Bangkok will tackle climate change. How can their trajectory to the pinnacle of consumerism be diverted towards sustainability? How can we possibly expect the poor to forego their vision of a better life until they have a modern apartment with an airconditioner, and a Toyota parked outside? How can the flood of gleaming metal pouring down the concrete rivers possibly be diverted? The only sign of hope we saw in our brief stay was the announcement by the government that it plans to complete its multi-billion dollar mass transit network within the next three years – a target few seem to think is feasible. Even the ashram with its simple traditional lifestyle has its challenges. Every time their activities take them into the city, there is over an hour of driving each way.
Cut to Perth, Western Australia. Now one of the wealthiest cities in the world, riding the resources boom created by Chinese and Indian economic growth. A city with the highest rate of car ownership in the world, and more miles of road per person than even Los Angeles. A city whose food is mostly trucked thousands of miles across the continent. A city whose houses require airconditioning in summer and heating in winter despite a climate in which neither should be necessary. A city which, despite water shortages, still emulates the verdant British countryside.
The resources boom is a mixed blessing. Perth, and indeed the whole south-west of the State, has become ‘home’ to highly-paid fly-in, fly-out mine workers who work hard and live hard. As a result, property prices have gone through the roof, and there is a parallel boom in homelessness. Mental illness and suicide rates are high, as are drug addiction, crime and anti-social behaviour. When we arrived, the media were discussing new penalties for the ‘one punch’ murders that have become common in brawls.
Perth has the dubious distinction of being capital of the state with the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world. And Western Australia also has the dubious distinction of being a region that will suffer more than most from the impacts of climate change. Fresh water will become even scarcer. Much of its farming land will become desert. Its rich heritage as a biodiversity hot spot will be lost. Perth’s famed beaches will disappear. More people will die from the heat. …
Once again, the question arises: how on earth can such a city become environmentally sustainable? How can it possibly reduce its emissions of carbon within 20 or 30 years from 34 tonnes per capita per annum to the 2 tonnes that Gaia can absorb on average? (That’s a 94% reduction!) And yet climate change seems to be way down the political agenda here. How can ‘sandgropers’, as Western Australians are often called, be diverted from their complaisant hedonism to take their danger seriously?
Here at the University of Western Australia, one of the most beautiful campuses in the world, I’ve joined a couple of old friends who are working to stir the pot. We’re running a series of 5 evenings on “Climate Change: Be the Change”, with 28 members of the public. As you’d expect, most are already ‘switched on’, and our strategy is not only to stimulate individual action, but also to encourage participants to become change-agents in their communities. Rather than focus on what to do, we will mainly be discussing how to do it. How can we encourage family, friends, neighbours, and work colleagues to join us in making effective changes? Key skills are community-building, identifying barriers to change, communicating non-violently with those who disagree, project planning, and group leadership.
A theme running through the course is the perception that our consumerist behaviour is a form of addiction. Each week we’re introducing a few steps from “twelve steps to a spiritual ecology” adapted from the Alcoholics Anonymous programme. The first vital step is to recognise that we are indeed addicted to ‘stuff’: “We admit that we are addicted and living in a society that fosters this addiction, and that we are powerless over our addiction to stop it.” (If you haven't already seen it, the Story of Stuff is well worth watching!) Steps 2 and 3 are to accept that we are parts of a much larger and mysterious whole, and that we can tap the healing power of this whole by surrendering our lives and wills to it.
Christine and I find one of our biggest challenges is how to engage with our own families and friends. It’s relatively easy to stand up in a room of strangers and talk about ways in which they could change. But we find it much harder to discuss specifics with our adult children. They are aware and concerned about the issues, but, like all of us, are inconsistent in their responses. How can we lovingly, uncritically, without judgement, without sparking anger or resentment, point out that driving long distances for minor reasons is no longer appropriate; that over-filling the electric jug wastes energy; that collecting trivial consumer items is not ok; that taking the time to read labels and minimise ‘food miles’ is worthwhile; or that living in the country is no longer sustainable? And how can we truly justify our own ‘love miles’ to be with them? Should we give up seeing our families, scattered as they are across the globe, for the good of the planet?
As climate change bites harder, we will all be faced by these and many similar dilemmas.