One of the best choices I ever made in my life was to travel around the world in 1978-79. Traveling on a shoestring budget, $6000 between me and my soon-to-be-wife, we spent a few months in Europe and the rest in India, Nepal, Thailand, Indonesia and Japan. It was a glorious time and I’m grateful beyond words that I got to experience a world that is on the verge of extinction. There were no MacDonalds anywhere in our travels, Starbucks was decades away, English was rare (except in India), the accommodations we could afford were simple and comfortable enough, the food we could afford was hearty, nutritious and delicious enough for our tastes. Traveling “with the people” on trains and buses was crowded, bumpy and sweaty, but vibrant and adventurous.
In South India, we ate our meals on banana leaf plates using our fingers. Crows took care of our leftover and the leaves decomposed happily back into the earth. We bought tea at train stations in unglazed ceramic cups which we then discarded—from earth back to earth. On hot days—and there were many—lying under a ceiling fan after a dip in the pond or bath was enough to keep us happy. Our brief stay in Singapore back then was in the part of town where ceiling fans and banana leaves were still an option. The city was just beginning its move to malls and high-rises.
Now back in Singapore in 2016, modernization, malls, MacDonald’s and macchiatos at Starbucks rule the town and nobody here would wax nostalgic about the “good old days.” There’s more money, more comfort, more convenience, all those signs of “progress.” But putting aside the loss of a life lived closer to the elements, with more soul and soil, more buzz and birdsong, there are some profound ecological consequences at work here. Air conditioning—constant, centralized and often too cold—is everywhere and pardon my science, but isn’t it still true that this poses a grave threat to the ozone layer? Not to mention my respiratory system. I just saw a clip on Facebook about the 120 billion pounds (or was it tons?) of plastic cutlery discarded in India each year. Banana leaves and unglazed ceramics decomposed and the last I looked, plastic does not.
I grew up wholly ensconced in the narrative of Progress, taught to feel sorry for Africans and Asians living in their undeveloped Third World. So wasn’t it great when China exchanged its hundred of thousands of bicycles for cars in programs encouraged by the government? Well, not so great for the kids in Beijing International “Clean Air” Schools that can’t go out and play on certain days and certainly not so great for the millions more who don’t have the luxury of “clean air” technology and inhale pollutants daily. And in Japan they told me the problem was so severe that the pollutants were wafting over to Japan. Isn’t progress great?
There are so many culturally sanctioned and government funded narratives at play in the world today that so desperately need changing. The theory of racial superiority, Manifest Destiny, the true believer and the infidel, male supremacy, drug criminalization, tax shelters for the rich, for starters. But let’s not forget mindless consumerism, air conditioning, cars and plastics as both ideas and realities that we need to attend to if we are to shift toward a more sustainable future.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the Botanical Garden to pick some banana leaves and sit in the heat until I get sweaty.