Vacation: Where Everything’s Made Up and the Earth Doesn’t Matter

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

When I left on this trip, I had justified my year-long deviation from the traditional life path – college, work, husband and/or dog and/or children, house, retirement, death – by proclaiming that I needed this opportunity to learn what made me tick, what I really enjoyed, rather than what I did because of environmental or social parameters.

As it turns out, many of the things for which I’ve developed quite the talent don’t really lend themselves to a career. Who wants an employee who can sleep for twelve hours a day? Or who can stare out of windows all day or play Sudoku like a champ or can read aloud whole passages from Shantaram to sunbathing friends? There might be a market for people like me, but I’m pretty sure that I don’t belong in the dark alleyways in which these markets are formed.

Luckily, I also confirmed that I’m an excellent organizer and networker – I’ve been mistaken as a tour group leader plenty of times, and I’ve been told repeatedly that I have a knack for gathering people together. I’m a pretty decent writer (I think) and photographer (a bit more dubious), and I take cool videos (you’re going to have to take my word for that). But probably the most important and unique asset that I can bring to a company is an explosive, contagious passion for anything I decide to take on as a project. And through much of this trip, I’ve grown more and more aware that my passion lies in environmental sustainability.

Aboard the Bergen Railway to Oslo, Norway

Aboard the Bergen Railway to Oslo, Norway

Ironically, the one issue I’m most interested in – water politics – is possibly the one I’m most guilty of perpetuating. I tend to take long showers (though I do turn the water off while shampooing and whatnot), and, as a result of my pesky obsessive-compulsive nature, wash my hands and face far more frequently than is required. And due to my traveling lifestyle, my carbon footprint this year is probably much higher than it has ever been in my life. (The previous link is a thought-provoking article on the seeming impossibility of living within our environmental means while being mobile in this 21st century world.) So yeah, maybe I’m a hypocrite. But I try to live by the principles of the 3Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – and minimize my impact on nature as much as possible. This includes: extending the life of my clothes by taking care of them and keeping my wardrobe in constant circulation, buying new technology only when absolute necessary (i.e. when “one’s” iPod goes tubing in Vang Vieng.. oops), reusing scrap paper and plastic bags as bin liners, using towels or clothing to dry hands instead of copious paper towels, refilling my metal “I ❤ Tap Water” bottle, and not smoking! (Seriously, it’s disgusting, harmful for yourself and others, contributes to pollution and especially to litter, and is the telltale sign of a natural scene spoilt by smelly invaders.)

But this isn’t necessarily the way the rest of the world works or thinks, and for however many initiatives put in place by the international community, humans find numerous ways to always get around these rules and dispose of their waste and their responsibility in the most damaging of ways.

I won’t go all eco-warrior on you now. I’m a lover, not a fighter, and I want you to come to these conclusions on your own, not because I guilted you into it. But here are some thoughts that have permanently burrowed into my mind, and which have played a great role in guiding my evolving opinions on these subjects.


Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Sorry, Straw Man – Some Arguments Against Mindlessness

Justification #1: Whatever. Littering creates jobs for people in the community.

Rebuttal #1: This is the rhetoric of Western hedonism, a lazy counter and stereotypical passing of responsibility onto the economically weaker link. While it might be true that such tasks offer an opportunity for poorer members of society, it further stigmatizes these people, and it offers more justification for future litterers. If job creation is truly a concern, it shouldn’t feed on the rotten scraps of Western tourism – it should be self-reliant and self-respecting, and tourists should pay into that growth rather than promote it through blasé laziness. Furthermore, there’s no assurance that there will be a taskforce following drunk tourists, profiting from their incompetence. Though, at big events and popular destinations, there oftentimes is, it’s not healthy to assume that one will always be picked up after, particularly when out in natural settings. All of the trash that isn’t picked up is buried into the sand, swept out to sea, or eaten by animals who end up choking or developing illnesses. So, erring on the side of caution, it’s important to pick up your trash and dispose of it correctly, or better yet, not create any to begin with!

Justification #2: This is how they make their money. Bottles of water and cans of beer are in-demand items, and necessary in the heat.

Rebuttal #2: This requires more agency by those in the upper echelons of supply chain management. While tourists can opt to fill up water bottles or order draught beers, this isn’t always an option in developing countries, where several bottled water companies and Chang beer alike have no quality regulation. Some upscale hotels and hostels are now offering filtered water for free, and Western-run institutions generally provide beer on tap (though Western institutions also tend to be more expensive), but from my experience and observation, most people stock up daily on liter-sized water bottles and plenty of beers and liquors to enjoy (and abandon) on the beach. The solution to this problem involves enforced water-purification programs, increased commercial quality control, a better developed recycling system, and a trade-off of pristine views with strategically placed trash bins. After all, it might slightly “ruin” the beach-front experience to have someone’s trash sitting five meters away, but it’s better than walking or swimming through it when you’re trying to enjoy a beautiful sunset.


Soundwave Festival (Tisno, Croatia)

Soundwave Festival (Tisno, Croatia)

Festivals.

To a great extent, the Full Moon Party triggered these thoughts, and Soundwave only exacerbated them. I’ll write more about them later (of this, I promise, because the irresponsible nature of festivals is actually a very important issue to me). But to summarize, my point is that festivals today need to follow more of a Burning Man-esque philosophy – “Leave No Trace” – which not so coincidentally is the same motto of the National Park Service. With large-scale festivals now increasing in number and moving into large tracts of otherwise uninhabited land, festival-goers don’t consider or observe the impact that their long commutes or pop-up communities have on the earth. And in the spirit of hedonism, they’re not encouraged to.

A really interesting, and increasingly important, job would be an environmental surveyor specifically in charge of evaluating the many ways in which an event’s carbon footprint could be minimized. I’m sure that such positions do exist, and that – with the frightening statistics outlining how much our population has overexerted our planet’s resources – more people are aware and actively trying to do something about this. But it’s not enough for a few people to advocate on the behalf of the earth; festivals should take a stricter stance on waste and litter, reward party-goers for recycling or reducing waste altogether, and offer far more scholarships and volunteer positions than are currently available to people willing to not only pick up trash later but encourage others to find creative ways to improve their environment. A wonderful example is Snow Globe, where stickers distributed to water-bottle holders granted them free water for the duration of the three-day event. I would much prefer to refill my water bottle and quench my thirst than pay $5 for a beer or bottle of water, especially considering the plastic they come with aren’t often immediately reused.

Anyway, this is all common knowledge, and I’m sure everyone’s nodding their heads, agreeing that something must be done, and that they’ve done their part to decrease their impact on the earth. And that’s awesome! But how does individual concern and interest spread, in a non-annoying and socially acceptable way? How do we stop people from throwing their cigarette butts on the ground, or disposing of bottle caps in bushes, or adding to the small but significant actions that ultimately result in the dirty world we live in?

Soundwave Festival (Tisno, Croatia)

Soundwave Festival (Tisno, Croatia)


New World Water

The sun is sitting in the treetops, burnin’ the woods
And as the flames from the blaze get higher and higher
They say, “Don’t drink the water! We need it for the fire!”

This is the main reason I’m interested in pursuing a graduate degree in environmental policy. Water disputes have raged for centuries and access to clean water has long served as a source for class separation. (In Dubrovnik, Michael of Old Town Hostel showed me the aqueduct that flowed just beneath the lobby and explained how the position of different homes in relation to the spring’s run-off reflected their nobility). In India, my relatives laughed at me when I only used a half bucket of water for my shower – more water, just like the excess usage of any resource, is a luxury and a sign of wealth. (Even the rich, though, forgo toilet paper for high-powered water hoses.) Rice paddies, despite their tremendous thirst for water, provide the basis for most Asian diets – so shouldn’t farming and irrigation be a high priority topic? But of course, these regard the “peasants,” and in our extremely consumerist culture, these people and their troubles are not primary considerations. To top that, these paddies are also sites for malarial outbreaks; monsoons might improve some parts of life, but they can drastically destroy others (Bangladesh particularly hurts from this), so effective water harvesting significantly impacts the livelihood of the community. However, regardless of the fact that millions of people suffer from water-borne illnesses ever year – regardless of the fact that during monsoon season you can’t even safely walk in the water or might have to access your home by boat – such cultures have learned to respect and cherish water.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

Last year, Professor Burawoy’s Public Sociology course examined how land disputes between various stakeholders in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh affected access to vital resources and the representation of individuals amongst this whole ordeal. Movies like “También La Lluvia” show how little Westerners understand of the struggle over a resource that we take for granted, but absolutely depend on. The thing that causes the mental disconnect is that we can afford to pay the premium water companies levy for collecting, purifying, and packaging water. Without that service, we’d be in the exact same position as those fighting for their basic human right of clean drinking water. Luckily, in countries like Spain, Croatia, and the United States, clean drinking water literally pours out of the wall, no purchase necessary.

So why isn’t water free everywhere? And why don’t we take more care to protect it, especially considering its usages are ubiquitous? This is obviously a much larger subject than the superficial glossing I’m giving it now, but the grandiosity of the topic offers a thousands pathways for consideration. While lounging in the crystal clear waters of Koh Tao, I wasn’t thinking of Thailand’s proximity to Japan. But the enormity of the oceans, plus the potential for transference via clouds and other atmospheric behavior, makes the nuclear meltdown in Japan not just a national or scientific concern, but a global one as well. Regardless of whether or not radioactive run-off will have an immediate or more long-term effect, and regardless of whether this is even as big a concern as some argue it is, nothing concerning water is an isolated problem.

I don’t have the technical expertise to manufacture something like Lima’s water-producing billboard, but I would be really interested in working with an organization creating similarly innovative technologies and disseminating them to the communities that would need and use them. Connecting scientists to business partners, writing grants, developing marketing strategies, and managing the administrative, office-related tasks – all are important for mobilizing a project from conception to completion (which is ::hinthint:: precisely what I do, so I figure now is the best time to start getting involved). Multimedia sites like Upworthy’s Environment category are a great place for inspiration, but I want to make actionable reality occur off the laptop as well. Do you?

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

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