To travel through the developing world of Asia, is to travel through dust, mud, trash, the constant burning of wood, and unkept landscapes – Social media moments aside. To be fair, tourism routes do not always intersect the (upper) middle class suburbs and malls emerging in some developing countries, but I believe it is reasonable to assert that large swaths of developing countries do not have the manicured look we are so used to in the developed world.
Much of what a tourist experiences is asserted to be the intersection of ancient practices and modern packaging. Thousands of years of throwing biodegradable waste in to lakes, rivers, and on land, without consequence. Now there is consequence, because the trash that modernity generates is not biodegradable. Same practice, different result. Similar story for sanitation.
In many developed countries, our lawns are regularly cut, the streets are clean, and we put our plastics in nice big recycle bins. What happens after the recycle bins are emptied I am not entirely sure, but I trust it is a good result. Even our treatment of waste is manicured to an extent that our minds our comforted. In Andrew Sullivan’s recent article, “America’s New Religions“, he argues, among other things, that we nicely manicure all of life to avoid the unpleasant realities of life: “Our modern world tries extremely hard to protect us from the sort of existential moments experienced by Mill and Russell. Netflix, air-conditioning, sex apps, Alexa, kale, Pilates, Spotify, Twitter … they’re all designed to create a world in which we rarely get a second to confront ultimate meaning — until a tragedy occurs, a death happens, or a diagnosis strikes.” Yet, the story of the Buddha, is one of a sheltered Prince stepping out of his manicured world into the world of suffering, and through that immersion, his great insights were achieved. On a much reduced scale, I may have experienced a little of that during my trip through developing countries in Asia; both on the human level with respect to those that have poor healthcare, education, and economic opportunities, but also on the environmental level. I return from my trip with a much greater concern about plastics, despite having seen information on the subject before, including the lakes of it in our seas.
I respect those that forgo one-use plastic. I respect those that reuse a plastic bottle. I respect those that use a reusable water bottle instead of plastic bottles. I in general respect the power of individual action aggregated to influence business and government. However, I am not sure this is enough. Maybe public eduction programs in developing countries will have a long term impact, as they did in developed countries. But I do wonder if this is a moment in time when we have to call on our best scientific, business, and political minds to produce pervasive alternatives to plastics. Alternatives that are biodegradable.