Which city is an environmentalist’s ultimate living hell? Is it Linfen, the Chinese city rated the most polluted on earth? Or the excessive developments of oil-rich desert capital Dubai, with it’s man-made islands and indoor ski slopes? Or, on the flip side of fortune, the burning rubbish piles of Phnom Penh and the terrible plight of press-ganged child recyclers?
Mark Hertsgaard’s amazing Earth Odyssey, offers several more compelling nominations. In it, the author travels to some of the most polluted and desolate places on the planet, from China’s chemical rivers to the dust bowls of Africa.
Bangkok, of course, makes Hertsgaard’s itinerary. Thailand’s sprawling haze-covered metropolis stands in stark contrast to the rest of the country’s tropical forests, immaculate beaches and teaming reefs (pristine natural environment that still has many around world blowing their carbon footprints to visit).
Without meaning to belittle the unsustainable and polluting credentials of the many other contenders, Bangkok is easily the hardest place for an environmentalist to live…
It’s not the pollution and noise
The first thing that Hertsgaard and all visitors to Bangkok must contend with is legendary traffic congestion and noise. Exhaust from the city’s choked roads contributes to highly polluted air that coats everything and everyone with a layer of grime; only overpowered by the stench of the city’s toxic waterways. And good luck spotting a tree in this concrete jungle!
Air quality has actually improved dramatically since Hertsgaard’s 1992 visit, thanks to a broad switch to compressed natural gas vehicles and major mass public transportation projects. Although Bangkok’s traffic and pollution remain extremely bad, there are worse places in the world.
It’s not the rampant consumption and waste
Haven’t seen styrofoam for years because it’s banned in your country? Time for some non-biodegradable nostalgia because even the cheapest street food in Bangkok is invariably packed with it, inside at least two plastic bags, with smaller bags for condiments, napkins, and disposable chopsticks. Unnecessary packaging accompanies almost everything sold in the city. FYI, don’t order food to go.
Cheap, disposable products and obscene levels of consumption may shock even those prepared for the worst. The drive to consume seems to pervade all levels of society. Shopping is the most popular recreational activity during lunch breaks, after work, between classes, instead of classes.
Advertising is everywhere and more blatantly misleading than anywhere else. Even the murky Chao Phraya River is painted a ridiculously stunning blue in a billboards promoting luxury condominiums – a Bangkok icon rendered unrecognizable.
Buying into mainstream Bangkok means buying into an ideology of unsustainable consumption; and this preoccupation indirectly contributes much more to carbon emissions, land clearing, use of fresh water and the creation of waste than any other personal action, except for maybe air travel.
Although few cities would match Bangkok’s drive to consume, it would be hard to characterize as the most wasteful. Believe it or not, just below the surface Bangkok is a buzzing hive of recycling.
It all comes out in the wash…
What makes Bangkok truly unbearable for anyone with the slightest eco conscience – what rockets it to the top of the list of environmental hell holes – is the shameless greenwashing that has evolved around its consumer culture in recent years.
Substanceless ‘green’ promotions in huge and rapidly proliferating shopping malls betray an ironic twist: ‘Green’ has arrived, but it’s just another brand to be slapped on a bag or t-shirt and sold.
Above the products, a giant LCD screen flashes “STOP GLOBAL WARMING!” in one of many glitzy, over air-conditioned malls.
Green is little more than a loaded colour, another meaningless fad. You’ll see more life-size cardboard polar bears in tropical Bangkok than you’re ever likely to see in the flesh.
This greenwash tsunami is the real tragedy of a polluted and all consuming city, now draped in plastic and cardboard green. When ‘go green’ messages are perverted to the extent that they are in Bangkok, advocating real change for sustainability seems that much harder. Greenwashing is an industry here and the advertisers – the ‘mad men’ – have won. The glimmers of hope that permeate Hertsgaard’s sobering odyssey have been all but washed away.
So congratulations Bangkok! You are the greenwashing capital of the world and every environmentalist’s darkest nightmare.
Disagree? Got another nomination? Add your comments…