by Hank Leukart
March 30, 2006
Three things the U.S. should learn from Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia teaches us about the environment, transportation, and poverty.
Commuters wait to board the Skytrain in Bangkok
ANGKOK, Thailand — While Southeast Asia has a lot to learn from the Western world, the U.S. has a lot it could learn from Asia. Here are a few developing-world cautionary tales and success stories.
1. The environment is key. Compared to many other countries, the U.S. does a decent job controlling pollution. Even our biggest cities are surprisingly clean and have breathable air, in part due to U.S. environmental policy like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Pollution Prevention Act, and the Oil Pollution Act. To protect our wilderness, President Woodrow Wilson signed an act in 1916 creating the impressive U.S. National Park Service — one of the U.S. government’s most notable and lucid accomplishments.
Still, current U.S. environmental policy needs to be strengthened. One of George W. Bush’s worst flaws is that he has an exceptionally bad environmental record. Every environmental lobbyist and interest group hates him. During his time as Texas governor, he weakened environmental policy such that Texas became the most polluted state in terms of air and water pollution; he crippled the Clean Water and Air Acts; he cut the budget for the EPA’s enforcement division; he consistently favors industry over the environment, pushing for offshore drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; his administration still denies the existence of global warming despite there being no prominent scientists who agree; he opened millions of acres of previously protected wilderness to logging and mining; and his recently-signed energy bill contained $2.6 billion in tax breaks for oil and gas companies. $2.6 billion? Couldn’t that money have served the public better had we just sent it to the National Park Service? George, you’re really not endearing Republicans to us swing voters.
Visiting any developing country, like those in Southeast Asia, makes it agonizingly clear that its environment is a country’s single most important resource and the destruction of that environment has disastrous effects. It’s difficult to fully grasp the extent of the potential problems without spending time in places where these problems are already manifest. I wish we could force George W. Bush and members of Congress to spend six months living in Mexico, Thailand, or India — it would give them a valuable perspective and each one would return with a new-found respect for environmental policy.
Sometimes, the best way to see your home clearly is to leave it.
2. An excellent public transportation infrastructure is essential. It is simply a (short) matter of time before U.S. city-traffic comes to a complete halt when there are more cars than U.S. roads can handle and gas costs $15 US per gallon. This is not far-fetched; in Amsterdam, gas currently costs $6.48 US per gallon. That’s $97 just to fill up a 15-gallon tank. Already, it is literally impossible to take a drive in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Boston, or Atlanta unfettered by gridlocked traffic. Strangely, developing nations seem much more concerned about this quality-of-life problem than the U.S.
What can we learn from Southeast Asia? First, the city of Bangkok has a dreadful traffic problem. In some parts of the city, it can take over an hour to travel a distance that would normally take five minutes without traffic. Again, if U.S. politicians were forced to spend three months driving in Bangkok, they might worry more about the U.S. But more importantly, the city of Bangkok, in addition to their efficient boat-taxi system and bus system, has recently built both a subway system and a sky-train system, with much success. Traffic is still a problem, but it’s getting better. The idea of owning a car in Bangkok seems ridiculous; during my visit, I could get anywhere quickly with little delay. The fact that Bangkok can manage this while the cities of Seattle and Los Angeles can’t even figure out how to build a decent bus system baffles me.
If I were the U.S. president, I would make public transportation my number one priority. Doing so would solve the energy problem; it would greatly increase people’s life-quality by helping them get of traffic; and it would let people spend their money on more important things than owning a car. I’d try to beef up the cross-country train infrastructure, I’d encourage states to initiate efficient public transportations projects, and I’d push large cities to limit metropolitan streets to only taxis and buses. If George W. Bush actually believed in the threats of a transportation and energy crisis, he would have started a campaign like this on his first day in office. Instead, he seems to care only about finding more oil.
3. There’s no glamour in being poor — and surprisingly little glamour in being rich. It’s currently en vogue for intelligent, young, (and mostly liberal) college students to scorn the pursuit of wealth in favor of a life of exciting, gritty poverty. Students talk of traveling the world with no debt and no attachments; they eschew stable salaries to “follow their dreams”; and they fantasize about the apparent excitement of living a “real” life without a financial safety-net or creature comforts.
It sounds glamorous. It isn’t.
For many of these students, their idea of living a “real” life entails remaining unemployed while relying on mom and dad’s financial safety-net. It’s easy to be poor when “being poor” means doing no work, having an empty bank account, but then driving a BMW, living in a parent-funded apartment, and traveling the world on the cheap using dad’s paycheck while sometimes being “forced” to fly to Europe to fulfill the family ski vacation “obligation.”
Pay attention when you visit Southeast Asia. When you’re actually poor, you live in Laos and spend 12 hours every day sitting on a dirt road in a market, begging tourists to buy your hand-made clothing. You hope to make $2 US in a day (Laos’s average yearly income is $320 US per year). You live in Honduras and you eat rice and beans every day for the rest of your life. You live in Thailand, where your only source of income is the $10 US you get each day for the extra rooms in your house that you rent to backpackers. You live in Cambodia, you beg from tourists on the street, and you can’t afford to go to a doctor, ever. That’s what it’s like to be poor.
On the flip side, being rich is overrated too. Again, pay attention when you visit Southeast Asia. Most of the people you’ll meet have perfectly healthy and happy lives and live on only $2000 US per year. Most of them don’t worry about making sure they have the latest Hermes handbag; they don’t care that their jeans are perfectly fitted to their butts; and MTV’s Laguna Beach and Fox’s The OC are as foreign to them as written Thai script is to us. Then, try visiting an upscale, Western-style mall in Bangkok; the contrast — the vapid materialism reflective of Western culture — is sickening.
The wealth doesn’t feel glamorous at all.
See also: Five things Southeast Asia should learn from the Western world. WB