12 May 2009

Understanding Sustainability

Throughout the semester I have thought a lot about my individual role in development. As an American, it is impossible to not be a consumer. Since I am very much a part of a capitalist society, I cannot live in isolation from my surroundings. Capitalism thrives on production and ultimately consumption; I cannot avoid being a cog in this machine. In Thailand, however, capitalism is not as inescapable and some villagers have managed to live outside of it’s aggressive grasp.

The only true way to escape the uncompromising forces of consumer society is to live sustainably. Sustainable livelihood was not something I had really given much thought until I came to Thailand. The idea of sustainability in the West is inevitably about consumption. Living “green” has become a trend that encourages people to purchase appliances that use fewer resources. For example, hybrid cars have become a trend in the States, but driving less or carpooling has not. In Thailand, sustainability can exist outside of consumerism. Instead of being a trend, it is a way of life.

The first person to introduce the concept of sustainability to me was P’Bamrung. P’Bamrung is an active member of the Assembly of the Poor, the TAO of Yasothorne, and an idol to many who are pursuing organic agriculture. In Yasothorne, a province in Isaan, P’Bamrung helps farmers to transition from chemicals and mono-cropping to more sustainable methods. Farmers practice mono-cropping are no longer growing crops to feed themselves, so they must import food from other places for survival. According to P’Bamrung, “this is not sustainable.” The increased reliance on outside markets leaves the people of Thailand, especially small scale farmers, in a vulnerable position. It is for these reasons that he promotes returning to traditional methods of sustainability instead of advocating for new and more efficient ways to farm to rival with competing markets. By going back to more traditional practices, P'Bamrung is giving farmers in his village “something that the economy cannot take away;” that is sustainability.

Recent development schemes in Thailand, however, threaten to take away this peaceful lifestyle. In the process of building dams, mines, and water dredges for a larger development project, many villagers land is either directly taken away for a development project, or becomes indirectly infertile due to chemicals and salt in the water and soil. These development schemes are not surprising given the pressures of capitalism, which drive this initiative. If Thailand does not work to develop, the economy will suffer and the country will fall behind to other larger powers like China and India. The government addresses the villagers’ loss of land and livelihood by providing them with monetary compensation. Land is becoming more scarce in Thailand, so villagers can rarely purchase new land with the compensation money. The money only provides the farmers with a short term answer, but in the long run it leaves them with nothing. Monetary compensation fails because it is not a sustainable solution. Money cannot buy sustainability.

Many villagers that we have exchanged with this semester are fighting against development projects so they can continue their sustainable livelihoods. Given our awareness of the scarcity of resources, Western societies could benefit from learning from the villagers about sustainable living. If people stopped consuming and started living sustainably, then capitalism would fail. Since capitalism relies on constant growth and consumption, it will inevitably fail given our limitation in natural resources.

Globalization generally prioritizes growth, expansion, and productivity. As people we prioritize money. We think of new technologies and doing things with increased efficiency as progress. After spending a semester in Thailand, however, I see sustainable livelihoods and going back to traditional methods of farming as far more progressive than any new technology. I hope in the future I can learn to live more sustainably and contribute less to development.

Katja Nelson - Occidental College

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