Thursday, 31 May 2007

Greener Than Thou





On coming back from Thailand to England for a brief visit, it’s always interesting to note the slow, incremental changes that always seem to be happening here. Only if you’re away for a time are these really discernible.

I notice, for example, that life is getting faster and, it seems, more unforgiving. The demands on employees to be more productive and to work longer hours are ever-increasing. As living costs go up and aspirations for the good life add to the pressures, the worst features of modern western society are being exacerbated.

Sadly the societies that work the hardest are often the wealthiest… one thinks inevitably of the USA, Germany, Japan and now England. In America their macho work culture means that annual holidays for workers are about half those generally enjoyed in Europe and this yields dividends, but it’s a sad reflection on national priorities. As individual wealth increases, you’d think people would be able to demand more leisure time and thus a better quality of life.

France is a country that has consciously looked for a proper balance between work and leisure. With their tradition of the two hour lunch break and the closure of many work places for the August break when families can spend four weeks together, they seem to have got their priorities right. Yet sadly their economy is now in a mess, though I’m not sure if the one thing has caused the other. If they dispense with their heroic but naïve policy of a thirty five hours working week, if they can liberalise their labour markets to allow businesses to expand and take on new workers, then maybe the economy can grow again while preserving their lifestyle.

The new president, Sarkozy, somehow has to persuade the young that liberalization is their greatest hope… the most important thing is not job protection but a thriving economy and the chance of finding new employment. With entrenched attitudes about social protection, it’s going to be an uphill task though.

The other more striking change I notice in England after a year away is the high level of media hype about global warming, the environment and conservation. This often focuses on energy efficiency and the recycling of domestic waste such as plastics, paper and glass. There are now more incentives to make homes more efficient with better insulation and local councils are devising new schemes to increase the amount of refuse that is recycled and so not dumped into scarce landfill sites. The planners are coming up with dream scenarios in which householders will be rewarded for separating vegetable waste which is then collected and used to generate combustible gases while other non-recyclable waste is burned to generate energy.

Tescos, the big supermarket chain has announced plans to put a label on all its 70,000 products stating a ‘carbon footprint’ consisting of all the fuel, transport and other costs incurred in its production. Unfortunately today’s newspaper tells me that they have hit all sorts of problems in defining the scheme. For example, should the methane produced by a cow’s belches count towards the carbon footprint of a joint of beef, to say nothing of its farts.

The price of petrol and diesel has been going sky high, making Thailand look relatively cheap, but nonetheless the English suburbs are still teeming with ridiculous gas guzzling 4X4 ‘Chelsea tractors’. Popular vilification of their owners may in time change this strange fashion as the collective interest demands increased fuel efficiency, but still the demand for fossil fuels is ever increasing with living standards and expectations going higher.

Nonetheless, people are using energy saving light bulbs, there are campaigns to limit the use of disposable plastic bags in shops and one small town in Devon has even become bag free, with its retailers agreeing to stop handing them out to customers. Plastics is always a huge problem, but ironically a major use is the proliferation of green plastic water butts that householders use to save water for their gardens. Cut down on the watering, only flush the loo when you have to and shower with a friend, we’re constantly told.

To reduce ‘food miles’, buy the product that has been produced locally rather than flown in from South America and choose the ones with the least disposal packaging. Take holidays locally rather than fly long haul at great environmental cost and generally monitor your own personal carbon footprint. Conservation and global warming has thus become an obsession, percolating into the national consciousness and the individual way of life.

I can only applaud this development so long as the choices we take genuinely minimize the use of fossil fuels and reduce pollution and carbon emissions. Unfortunately, attractive policies can have unforeseen consequences. The drive to substitute vegetable oils for petrol and diesel fuels and the extensive planting of oil palm trees, in Indonesia for example, could lead to the clearing of huge tracts of rain forest and cause an ecological disaster.

So where does this leave me… as an eco-friendly tree hugger or a carbon hungry gas guzzler? How large is my own carbon footprint? Well, I’ve just flown across the world from Bangkok to London and I’m driving a considerable number of miles to see friends in my fuel inefficient old MGB. Then again, as the production of a new car represents forty percent of the pollution caused by its own lifecycle, my MG now being thirty three years old shouldn’t disgrace me too much. It is British racing green after all, and I hope I can be allowed the luxury of a classic car without too much self-flagellation.

I have to admit doing something pretty outrageous though. I’ve just spent a morning belting an E Type Jaguar, an Aston-Martin and a Cobra round the race track at Goodwood, burning rubber, fuel and far too much cash. This was a sixtieth birthday present from my kids and I hope you’ll not begrudge me this one indulgence. Approaching the bend at the end of the Lavant strait doing ninety miles an hour, my instructor begging me to brake, was quite an adrenalin rush. Now I shall have to wear a hair shirt for a bit and I promise not to do it again… well, not until I reach my seventieth birthday.

Finally, I think back to Thailand where in contrast to England there’s a total absence of environmental awareness among ordinary people. The Thais say they love their country but they trash it mercilessly with uncontrolled developments and rubbish thrown everywhere. Plastic proliferates and their food packaging is prodigious in its extravagance.

There is some recycling of bottles and plastic but this is only ever done to make money and the idea of doing it as a social obligation is light years away. In our village, there’s no waste collection whatsoever… rubbish is just chucked away and left in squalid heaps. In the cities, especially Bangkok, how they cope with the mountains of waste generated by ten million people, I have no idea. This must be a growing crisis of huge proportions.

I’m sure I have the beginnings of a partial solution though, namely that schools should tell the children that it’s their clear duty as a patriotic Thai to minimize their use of plastics and packaging and to recycle waste on principle as well as for profit. Thailand’s environmental problems are horrific and a dreadful contrast to the serene neatness of rural England that I can see here from my window.

When will the Thais hear the wake up call?

1 comment:

mike said...

I was faced with an interesting re-evaluation of my ideas not so long ago. Travelling in Thailand by car, my Thai wife wanted to throw her empty drink can from the window. Now, she is already familiar with my eccentric western desire to hang on to rubbish, even though I never sell it; however, this time, she made a good argument. "It will only ne there for a little while - someone walking from the village will pick it up and they can sell it for one baht." I capitulated in the face of such excellent logic.