Happy Ocean Day
Yesterday was Earth Day, a fact I overlooked here in Thailand where it isn’t recognized with quite the same fervor as it is in the US. As a scuba diver and general underwater enthusiast, I tend to see Earth Day through the lens of that mass that makes up over 70% of our planet…. the ocean.
The statistics on the destruction of the coral reefs and the general health of our oceans are staggering. At this moment in history 25% of the world’s coral reefs are effectively lost, while an additional 45% are under serious threat (source). And the fish aren’t faring much better: over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted (source). There is a patch of marine litter in the Atlantic Ocean that some statistics quote as being the size of Texas (source).
But don’t feel defeated; feel inspired. Last year I heard Jean Micheal Cousteau speak at a panel titled “The State of Our Oceans” and I found his message deeply inspiring: that the most important thing we can do as individuals is not to place blame on corporations or governments, but to change our own actions and be loudspeakers for our beliefs. In that spirit, I am making some Earth Day pledges, and I hope you will join me in them.
1. I will not use single-use plastics.
Oceanographers have found that between 60 and 95 percent of today’s marine debris is made of plastic (source). Considering the relative ease with which many plastics can be removed from the average person’s life… this is a no-brainer. For most people it comes down to two main culprits: plastic bags and plastic bottles.
I have a 90% success rate at turning down plastic bags. Here in Thailand it is a constant battle to grab the one small item you are purchasing off the counter before the cashier triple bags it and gives you seven straws. Just this week I stood in line at 7/11 in Ayuttaya and watched the woman in front of me buy three small items… each of which the cashier put in its own individual small plastic bag. My brain more or less exploded. Still, in rare moments of weakness, when I’m not carrying a canvas bag over my shoulder, I often purchase a few items and take the plastic bag out of convenience. Well, no more. If I can’t carry it in my own two hands or a reusable bag I have with me, I will wait to purchase whatever it is I need when I can return with an appropriate bag. This will be much trickier when I get back to the US and do major grocery shopping again, but I will simply be forced to plan ahead better when I need to do big shopping trips.
Back in the US, I have a 98% success rate with plastic bottles. I always drink water from the tap, and when I do drink beverages from a plastic bottle, I always recycle them. Here in Thailand, I have about a 3% success rate. Why? Tap water is not safe, meaning I’m often purchasing up to 5 different bottles in one day just to avoid dehydration. And recycling facilities are well hidden, if they exist. Basically, I don’t see any other option. In the future I might consider buying a SteriPEN (have any of you used one? feedback?) but it’s too late for that on this trip. I think my only option here is to buy the largest bottles of water possible to reduce the number I buy in a day, and then redouble my efforts to avoid plastic bottles and always recycle when I return to the US.
2. I will eat seafood sustainably.
Okay, so this one is cheating. I don’t eat seafood at all, for much less noble reasons. But I’m grateful for that right now, because it makes it easy for me to sleep at night knowing I haven’t eaten something that was raised or caught via unsustainable methods. Luckily for you seafood lovers out there (at least in the US), the Monterey Bay Aquarium has made things easier for you. You can download either pocket or mobile guides based on your region that breaks seafood down into Best, Good, and Avoid categorizes based on sustainability, overfishing, and other factors. If you live in the US and you eat seafood, you have no excuse not to follow that link and take advantage of an amazing, free resource!
Also: I will never, ever eat shark. Here is why. If you know of restaurants in your area that serve shark fin soup, be brave and hand them a card explaining your position, available for download here.
3. I will spread the word loud and clear.
Of the behavior changed that I have mentioned here, I think this may be the hardest. In our society it is looked down upon to “preach” to others or to comment on others’ behavior. Live and let live, right? Well… no.
We all share this Earth and if we see another person abusing it, I think it is fair and right to step forward and talk to them about alternative actions in a polite and non-condescending way. I’m starting with this post (which I hope you will share using the buttons below!), but I’m going to continue by talking to friends and family about plastic use and recycling, handing out seafood guides and anti-shark fin soup cards, and continuing to use this blog to show off what a treasure we have in these great big oceans of ours!
What do you think, readers? Will you join me? Please share this post with your friends and family, and tell me what you do to be green in the comments below!
Thanks for posting this. I’m a vegan for ethical reasons, and I take the state of the oceans very seriously. This past weekend, my aunt’s husband was teasing me as he always does about my eating habits, and he said, “You know, I feel sorry for you not being able to eat all the great seafood we have out here” (I live in the pacific northwest). Despite my past as a sushi and salmon lover, I told him that seafood is the easiest thing for me to not eat, because I cannot in all seriousness tell myself that my particular tastes and cravings and desires are more important than preserving entire species and ecosystems. They just aren’t.
I tend to get down about how we’re handling our planet, so it’s always so refreshing to find someone else out there who knows what’s up and cares 🙂 Thanks again.
Hi Katherine! Wow, I admire the dedication of any vegan. I have been a truly painfully picky eater since I was a child and going vegan or vegetarian would be almost a complete diet overhaul for me. Like I said, I’m kind of cheating because seafood doesn’t appeal to me (except shrimp!) so it’s not a tough sacrifice. Still, I definitely could put more effort into purchasing more ethically farmed meat when I am back home.
I love this!! The biggest thing I am doing right now is giving up meat (except as a rare treat). Hard for me because I love it so, but reading about the environmental impact of producing it has convinced me. It’s horribly polluting of water too…
I will try taking a leaf from your book and doing a better job at conserving plastic usage: it’s a great idea.
About the bottles…when I lived in China the tap water is also not drinkable. No recycling containers existed either so I always felt bad. But then I learned that there is recycling, it’s just not official. At night an army of human scavengers appeared and combed through the garbage of the day for everything remotely salvageable (paper, meat scraps, cooking oil, plastic, Styrofoam, etc.). They sell by bulk to junk dealers and support themselves in this way. Since all that stuff is worth a lot to them, they do a much more thorough job than most places in the US. Thailand might be similar?
Oh, Grace. I’m so impressed your are giving up meat…. that is not a step I am anywhere near ready to make, but I admire those who do. I guess that means I need to double up my efforts in other areas, huh?
In Thailand I see what you describe in China but only with glass bottles. If I buy a glass bottle of soda from a street vendor and try to walk away they sometimes follow me to make sure they get the bottle back, I’m sure because they get a refund or can have it refilled. But plastic, I don’t see the same thing. Someone told me that Thailand is one of the major exporters in the world of plastic bags and bottles, so that might influence the attitude.
That San Diego website was very interesting. Thanks.
You are welcome! I think making ethical decisions about things like that can be overwhelming… it’s nice to have someone who has done all the work for you and made a nice little guide!
If I save a whale would you go out for coffee with me?
Great post and that is an inspiring way of thinking, It’s so easy to put blame on someone else or feel the problem is overwhelming that one person’s actions won’t amount too much.
I always resist bags when I shop (unless I forget my canvas bag) and every Thursday at produce market in front of my apartment in Spain. Overall, the vendors cooperate but they sure like their plastic bags. Why o Why? And then we have a country like Rwanda who has banned Plastic bags!!!
I had no idea that Rwanda had banned plastic bags, how interesting. When I was living in Grand Cayman all the supermarkets starting charging for plastic bags, which I thought was a nice effort to try to curtail their use. And in my hometown one major supermarket chain does it even better… gives a 5 cent discount for every reusable bag you bring to carry your groceries out with.
I’ve been reading your blog for a while, but have never commented (my husband and I are embarking on a five month RTW trip at the end of this year, which will include 5-6 weeks in SE Asia…). I just had to say a huge thanks for this post – these are issues I’m so passionate about and the more people that understand how important it is, the better! It’s always so difficult to get people to understand that every choice they make has an affect on the Earth they call home. Great job and keep it up!!! (Oh, and I always use the Monterrey Bay seafood watch app on my phone – my friends and family are super embarrassed when I pull it out at restaurants and grocery stores.)
I’ve handed some of the pocket guides out to my friends in NYC who I know are big seafood lovers and luckily they were very receptive to hearing about it. Who knows if they use it, but at least they are getting out there! Congratulations on your RTW trip… I think you will have the time of your life!
Your passion for the ocean really rings through in this post, Alex. One of the things I’m most looking forward to when my husband and I embark on our upcoming RTW trip is the chance to finally scuba dive! I’ve put it square on my “non-negotiable, must splurge to do this” list, so I’ve really found your blog to be a wonderful inspiration and handy resource, too!
You’ve given me a lot to think about re: how to deal with the water situation in Asia. I have read some good things about Steri-Pens, but I’m not sure I could get over the mental block of drinking water in say, India. Apart from the fact that Steri-Pens do nothing to make suspect water taste good, I’d be so scared the whole time that I was going to get sick!
Hi Steph! Always so excited to hear someone has the diving bug… where are you thinking of doing your open water? And yes, the taste is what makes me hesitate about steri-pens as well. It would also require so much planning ahead, and unless you are staying in a room with a mini fridge you will likely be drinking warm, non-tasty water. Yuk…
Because of the way we are planning to do our trip, I think we may do a scuba course in Nha Trang, Vietnam. I know you had a mixed experience in Vietnam, in general, but we’ve never been so I’m hoping we love it! I have just always wanted to scuba dive, so I figured we could get certified in Nha Trang and then if we do love diving (and how could we not?!?) then we could also do dives in Cambodia, Thailand (you have me sold on trying out Koh Tao!), and then maybe Malaysia as well. I figure if we go in that order, we’ll also be building up in terms of how impressive each dive is, so even though Nha Trang might be the least impressive of all four, I don’t think it’s a terrible place to start. Any thoughts?
Hi Steph, I hope my mixed impressions of Vietnam don’t ever turn anyone off from visiting! In fact I hope maybe they help people go in with the right attitude, a better one than I had, to enjoy it more.
Nha Trang is a decent place to dive (did you read my post on diving there?) but the safety standards I saw in some places were frightening. I highly, highly recommend Sailing Club divers as one of the few places that I felt was a really professional dive shop. There is also Rainbow Divers but they are super pricey, while Sailing Club had roughly the same prices as the shoddy operators. Good luck! And definitely try diving in Cambodia- search for my post on that as well!
Good thoughts on this one Alex – I particularly enjoyed the infographic as well. Good job spreading the word!
I still remembered that infographic from the morning I saw it in the physical newspaper… I was so excited I was able to find it and share it hear. Really shocking, isn’t it?
Weird, I don’t remember the plastic bag situation being so bad in Thailand. It’s the same here in Argentina. I bring my own reusable bag to go shopping and I have to stop the cashiers from putting my stuff in plastic bags before putting them in my bag…
At least my area has finally started doing some recycling. It was one of the hardest things to adapt to when I arrived here, not separating all my rubbish for recycling.
As I mentioned in another comment, I was recently told that Thailand is one of the world’s top exporters of single-use plastics, which would definitely have an effect on the attitude here! As for recycling… I remember in the apartment that I lived in in Brooklyn for years I was so fastidious about separating my recyclables as the building of course claimed to participate in recycling programs. Then one day I saw it all going into the dump trucks with the trash. Sigh.
Good for you!!! I am going to think of a pledge and stick to it too. Guilty of the plastic usage for sure…
Start by making just one day plastic bag and bottle free and go from there…. it’s surprising how easy it is once you just change your mindset, I think. Good luck!
Ugg, I hear ya about not being able to stop using plastic water bottles in Asia. I’ve been told the tap water isn’t safe to drink here in Korea too (although it’s not as bad as Thailand), so we buy cartons of water in plastic bottles. It really does kill a part of me each time–in Seattle I was fanatical about avoiding plastics and things with too much packaging. Now I’m just fanatical about making sure as much of it ends up in the recycling bins as possible. At least Korea has a good recycling system.
Recycling really does ease a lot of the pain. I really wish facilities were more readily available here in Thailand! I would never dream of drinking bottled water at home, really, so it’s just a shock to the system when you are forced to do so. I want my free water! From the faucet! 🙂
Great set of goals there Alex. I saw the demo’s here in Madrid, be interesting to see if the Spanish pledge themselves with as much forthrightness as you have in this post!
It’s definitely true that some areas are just more “green” than others… take Portland for example, where I think it may be punishable by death not to compost. I’m not sure what the cultural attitude is like in Spain, but like I said… I really believe every one person can make a difference by living sustainably. Cheesy but true.
What a great post Alex! Love this. I am a huge plastic-hater and ocean-lover (I volunteer with Surfrider – https://www.surfrider.org/ for anyone who is interested) and I have a few more tips that I use – when traveling in places where you can’t drink the water, I always bring my stainless steel bottle and then just buy the biggest bottle of water I can and use that to refill the reusable bottle. Less plastic than tons of those little ones! (I’m also looking into the SteriPen but I’m too scared so far…) I also make sure to remind myself and others of my favorite Finding Nemo quote – “all drains lead to the ocean”! Not technically of course, but eventually they do so don’t put anything down the drain you wouldn’t want in the ocean. Happy oceans = happy earth 🙂
Yes when we were stationed in Koh Tao Mark and I always tried to buy the gallon jugs. Unfortunately when on the road its more difficult but I at least buy the “big size” water as its so descriptively named here in Thailand. Glad to hear so many others are feeling passionate as well!
I think that eating sustainable seafood is SO hard. Brain-power wise. With pork/beef/chicken the rules are simple. I’m looking for free-range, organic, etc etc (and trying not to eat very much of it).
But with fish everything is different for each fish! And each region! Do I want the farmed salmon from the Northeast or the fresh from Alaska? Can I really ever have shrimp? (I haven’t had it in like 2 years now after reading Eating Animals). We buy our tuna from Amazon so we can get Wild Planet tuna. But all of this becomes infinitely more difficult when I go out for sushi, which is rare, but still I feel guilty.
But I want to be like you and do better!
That’s why I love the Sustainable Seafood app I linked to here…. it’s laid out by region! I really encourage you to check it out if you haven’t already. I am always inspired by your responsible food posts, I really wish I was better about beef and chicken. It’s just one more thing to add to the list of endless self improvements! I guess as long as we are always trying to better something…
I’ll try and check out that app also. Like Jenna says, it can be hard to be picky with seafood- food in general- in Asia. Most of the time, you’re eating seafood that was caught just a few kilometers or less from where you are sitting.
I often wonder though what happens with all that seafood a day that isn’t sold.
I’ll take the pledge!
Unfortunately I think our choices about eating/living sustainably can be really limited when traveling or living abroad. Either it’s not possible or we don’t know enough to know how to do it. So that’s why I think it’s so important to be double conscious of our choices when we are back in the US!
My name is Steven, I am PADI IDC Staff Instructor and professional UW photographer, based in Oregon and Maui. I recently visited Koh Tao for a month, where I did a great deal of soul-searching and left with a sense of cognitive dissonance.
Like you, the people there are very eco-conscious. Very much into protecting the aquatic environment. Or so the words say. But like you as well, they continue to promote Koh Tao as a destination, which is creating a growth estimate of 20% over the next few years, according to PADI.
But the fact is, and there is published research on this for anyone who cannot simply open their eyes – That island is dying. It is getting used up. The corals are mostly moribund – meaning they are not quite dead but they will not recover. Waste water, silt from development, over-use by beginner divers with poor buoyancy, trash, toxic waste from diesel, paint, construction, etc., are overwhelming a tiny and fragile ecosystem.
In 15 years, the reefs of Koh Tao will be a memory and a monument to denial and disconnect. The efforts to “save Koh Tao” are mostly based on raising awareness – awareness of anything but the bold truth of reality, it seems.
They do debris pick-ups, but have nowhere to take the trash they collect (an estimated 6 tons OVER THE CAPACITY OF THEIR DISPOSAL MEANS is produced DAILY during the high season. DAILY!!) There is no waste water system, and no regulations. They put up signs and install bins, and the bins are taken by Thais and dumped on the hillside, out of sight.
I have concluded that the people of Koh Tao are grieving the dead island they love…and going through the stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining…The “save Koh Tao” movement is a bargaining, and also, in its name, an admission that it is dying.
So I have to ask: Why do you pledge to reduce plastic use, not eat sharks, and educate others, but still, without hesitation, encourage others to visit this place that is being loved to death??
Is it just so special of a place that everyone MUST see it, even though everyone seeing it is a death sentence to the reefs and the landscape? What is the motivation? Are you willing to at least look at the research that is available and think about what it means for you to be actively recommending Koh Tao tourism?
Read this abstract, especially page 2, which lays out the situation and says, in part, ” the combination with pollution, physical disturbance and sedimentation, however, is causing mortality rates that will eventually reduce coral abundance and diversity below the critical levels necessary to sustain reef function. The reefs around Koh Tao are rapidly approaching the threshold points at which critical ecosystem functions are lost”.
When you have read it, please get back to me and let’s chat…
Note that one of the authors is a dive instructor on Koh Tao.
Hey Steven, you bring up a really interesting discussion here and something I struggle with often working in travel media — as do many of my colleagues. There are tow very strong contradictory human impulses to both gush about and to protect the places we love. As a travel writer, it is literally my job to gush — it’s not only a passion, it feeds me. As you can see, I believe I have an ethical responsibility to promote responsible tourism, but where that line is drawn depends on who you ask.
I agree with you that there is an obvious problem on Koh Tao with lack of infrastructure and with over-loving of the reefs. I avoid the island in high season when there are frequent power outages, a serious shortage of water and a frequently unpleasant smell from the strain on the sewage system. But frankly, what is the solution? The secret is out, one person abstaining from talking about their infectious love for this little island isn’t going to stop the influx. Koh Tao has no industry but tourism. The people there would lose their livelihoods and their businesses. Many of those people are my dear friends. I guess you could argue tourists will leave eventually someday if/when the reefs are decimated, but so the two options are that Koh Tao is eventually abandoned? I don’t like those two scenarios and argue that there must be a third, even if I don’t quite know what it is yet.
I agree, a solution must be found — but I don’t think trying to stop people going to paradise is going to be it. Please don’t think I’m discounting what you are saying — I’m not, and I think it’s a fascinating discussion. But I don’t know what the answer is.
I am very impressed that you posted my comment and your reply. I am not always a pedantic “downer Deb” kind of person, I don’t really do the gloom and doom thing, but on this one, I am just so darn curious and perplexed about this strange obsession that seems to be viral concerning this one little rock, one of so many little rocks, and yet, it is apparently woven into the fabric of the Spiritus Populi. FYI: I am 49, maybe same age as your parents?? I first went to Koh Tao in 1998 and it was really paradise. Stayed there most of the next 3 years, off and on. Learned to dive there. Taught my wife to dive there. Took my first UW photos there, and now that is a central part of my life and business. I am beyond in love with that island. Most of my identity…a diver, an artist, a teacher…all wrapped up in that one little rock that changed my life and changed me.
And I will not go there. I am not willing to take that responsibility. But, that said, please know that I never – NEVER – said that abandonment was the only solution. That was something you took away from my letter, but I didn’t give it. And I ABSOLUTELY NEVER – never could, never would dream of EVER suggesting that you abstain from talking, or gushing, or both at the same time if you can safely do so… 😉 On principle, I believe that silence is part of the problem, and free expression and liberty are gifts from God that must not be constrained. This is the heart and soul of America, and I am a very American American…Yes, that means I’m a know-it-all as well 😉
But why does everyone need to go to this particular paradise, at the real risk of being part of the cause of the death of this paradise? More to the point: Why does everyone I talk to – EVERYONE – seem to assume that the choices are either business as usual, or total boycott? You, at least, refuse to accept this conclusion. But still you came to this conclusion, and you have no reason whatsoever to believe your own assertion that there must be a third.
The teacher in me really wants to hand you back your reply with notes in red ink explaining the problems with your argument 🙂 And it may come to that…but not now. Now, I want to say that you are right. You are a wishful thinker, and have no logic to back up your belief that there is a third path, but maybe your soul sees what your conscious mind doesn’t, because you are absolutely right. There is a 3rd way, and it is so utterly simple that nobody can see it, or else so much more horrifying than killing the ecosystem that no one will speak up and say the obvious. I’m not sure which.
I was hoping you could tell me. You are young, you are a part of this culture, and I am old. You believe you have an ethical duty to promote responsible tourism. You SAY that one person cannot stop the influx, but you betray yourself when you pledge, as one person and also in hopes your readers will join you, to not use plastic bags or eat shark meat. Why would you do that? One person walking past a restaurant that serves shark and eating elsewhere isn’t going to stop the shark fishers…is it?? Will your reusable totes stop the flood of plastic?
I think you know very well that one person is always the one person who makes things happen. It always ALWAYS starts with one person.
I don’t have any real heroes. But there is one young man I greatly admire, a young man who is an athlete. But I don’t admire his physical talents…He is a champion in a team sport, but by himself he really isn’t the best. He’s too short, kinda squirrelly, not always on target. But he wins, his team wins. They are just winners, period. This short, awkward kid and his teammates just win, because they truly believe that they have been blessed with a potential for greatness – And they believe that it is their solemn duty to God to work their asses off in order to develop these talents and achieve that potential for greatness, because to sit down and be satisfied with the gifts that God gave you, and not use those gifts to develop your passion and use it to honor God, that is a shame. A sin.
I love this athlete because he isn’t honored by God when we wins, he honors God by preparing himself and supporting his mates and working his butt of so that winning is just part of the process. And when he was young, and he wanted to be a quarterback, the leader of an American football team, he was afraid that he was way too short to cut it. And his dad told him, “Someone is going to be the quarterback. On every team, at every level, someone is the quarterback. The best professional team, the champions of the world? SOMEONE is going to be the quarterback…
“Why not you?”
Why not you? Why not us and why not me, and why not you, Alex?
PLastics. wow, what a huge problem. But we have to do our part. Like sharks, and fish, and tote bags.
But Koh Tao?? That is a little bitty rock, and it can be saved, and the solution is not abandonment, there is absolutely a third choice, and it is the correct path, and it is obvious if you just see it – so obvious that it eludes everyone, because everyone who hasn’t been there doesn’t know the situation, and everyone who’s been can’t bare too give it up…But they don’t need to give it up, that is an assumption that hides the real solution.
I have a solution, and it will work, without doubt. If everyone, or a large enough number, plays along and accepts that the other two options – kill it or abandon it – are unacceptable, then it WILL work. I promise you it will. I swear on my honor to God that it will work, without disrupting the jobs of the Thai people. And only a few western expats will lose jobs, and there are a few that really need to go anyway.
You are saying, right now, who the bloody h___ is this guy, and who does he think he is? Really, he thinks he, when all the others have worked so long and failed to find a solution that was effective and sustainable and executable, this American wanker thinks that HE has the solution? Really?? REALLY???
….Why not me? For real, Alex, why not me?
You are willing to “argue” with no logic whatsoever and no idea in the world, that there MUST be a third option, and you are willing to assert that publicly, and with a certainty that really seems misplaced. You seem to believe that your feeling that a solution will arise is so certain to be correct that you are satisfied with that, and will continue to promote the place and be ok with your ethical responsibility to your readers and the planet and that island…
So if you believe that, really believe that, then you must know that someone, some ONE is going to devise that solution. And they will look for a way to present the solution and promote it, and get the process rolling…
Why not me? I have the skills to design interactive processes with reasonably assured outcomes – it’s called ‘systems analysis.’ I am good at it. So why not me?
And you have a passion for writing, and love travel, and have a readership of intelligent and aware people…and you answered my letter, you answered the call of duty, so if someone has to start this process of publicity and promotion of the solution…
Why not you?
Is it not for you? Is there some reason that you do not have enough talent or passion, or blessing enough to develop your passion and use it to do something really extraordinary, truly epic? Is there some reason that the person asking you to save that island cannot be the someone with a viable solution? Is it not possible that your passion and your purpose here on this blog are attracting a vision that you will help to make real? Something that honors God? Answer me, …
Why not you?? Why not you, sweetheart?
You are as special as everyone else who has ever done something epic. You are as passionate, as talented as any person who ever changed things for the better in some significant, beautiful, and honorable way.
So why not you? Why not us?
Do you have the will to do this? Do you want to be a part of it? Do you want to be at the center of an epic act of preservation, of one small little paradise that we both love??
Let me know. I will show you privately what must be done, and we can discuss the obstacles, the help we need, and the place to start. You will be compelled, I guarantee you. It really is so simple, you will feel silly, and you will be amazed. It can be done, and you and I are the ones who have to do it.
It has to be someone. Why not us??
send me an email, let’s gossip…
What can I say! There’s something magical about Koh Tao that keeps people raving about the place. It really is special. And I can see why you have such a strong connection to it having had a major life changing moment there so long ago. It must have been beautiful back then.
Now, you said you were tempted to take a red pen to my last comment and I have to say I’m tempted to do the same with yours. Rather than spending 500 words convincing me to hear your idea, why not just share it 🙂 I’m sure others would be interested as well.
“Rather than spending 500 words convincing me to hear your idea, why not just share it”
*****You can skip most of this if you like and look at my proposition below. But maybe you want an answer to your question first…*****
Since you are a professional writer with a passion for the craft, I’m sure you asked this rhetorically. But you did ask it, and it is a good question, so I am going to answer it first, and then I will share…
As you know, the information content of a proposition – a proposition being ANY piece of language that is meant to convey information – is greatly affected by the manner in which it is presented. In fact, sometimes “facts” have a secondary importance in how the reality they represent is processed by a reader. If I am rude and/or use bad grammar, you may completely dismiss my facts without checking them. If I am a professor and you are a wide-eyed freshman, you may accept my “facts” without question and repeat them as gospel.
This is called “framing,” and frames aren’t put on pictures just to hang them, they often are a major component to the beauty of fine art. We also add ‘matting’ to prints in order to further enhance the overall presentation and beauty.
So, in general, The reason I would introduce a proposition with an essay would obviously be to both enhance the chances that it will be processed in the proper context, in the spirit in which it was intended, and in the manner which I, the writer, desire it to be processed. Fair enough??
So, in this specific instance, I decided to frame my proposal in a manner than I believed would help you – or maybe manipulate you, if I’m to be honest 😉 – to see the facts of it as completely valid, or at least so beautiful as to deserve serious thought and consideration. Mind you, I’m not trying to elicit a gold star and a response of “Job well done! Good for you!” I am trying to motivate a tourism promoter to employ my facts by taking actions, and in turn present my propositions to others in order to motivate THEM into taking actions and changing behaviors. It is a very complex bit of linguistic acrobatics, and just spewing out random facts and ideas will not do! This has to be framed quite properly, and carefully, and with a passion that is equal to the task.
But you already knew this…right???
Just as you already know that I wrote this to you because your earthday/ocean day post put you in a position of having to take note of environmental issues or else admit that your words are somewhat hollow, and illustrated you as a person who does have genuine concern, but does not know what the solution is, and who would thus be compelled to respond to a comment like my first – which, btw, more people than not completely ignored, no matter how it was framed. So I guess you positively reinforced the correctness of my assessment of you 😉 I am very schooled in public relations, btw.
As for Koh Tao, the solution is so stupidly simple that no one sees it, and so just saying it without preamble is more likely than not to completely fail to register in peoples’ consciousness, or be processed with any understanding whatsoever. People with high IQs who do clean-ups there for Save Koh Tao have looked at me with slack jaws, glazed eyes, and incomprehension when I mentioned these obvious things to them. It is astounding!
So it had to be framed. It had to be matted, and you had to be able to form, in your certainty that there is and must be a solution for Koh Tao that is not ‘abandonment,’ the question: Why not? Why wouldn’t this work? It is so obvious, why is this not being done???
I would still be very interested to see your corrections of my writing, in bold red ink ;)…But maybe that should wait, for later. Just as I would not frame a 4″ photo with a 10″ matt and a frilly big frame, there comes a point where the proposition must be stated, or the attention of the reader will be rightly lost…
If the choice to abandon paradise is unacceptable, and the choice to go see the place is unquestionable because it is a special “paradise,” then the question becomes:
Is it the place, its beauty, its unique natural attributes – paradise – that makes the tourism compelling and necessary? Or is it the tourism that makes the place so special that you call it paradise? That is to say, Are you telling people to go there to see the place, a special place that is so special that it has to be experienced? Or are you telling people to go there because that is where everyone is going, and the party scene is what the experience is all about??
If it is the party scene, then I beg you and everyone who feels this way to please find another place to have the party!! A party can be anywhere.
But if, as you seem to feel, the place is special, as has been since before tourism, and will be even more special without the crowds and trash and “a frequently unpleasant smell from the strain on the sewage system,” as you so eloquently described; and if it is your “ethical responsibility” to promote “responsible tourism,” then I am asking you to not simply agree with, but to promote the idea that the tourists who go there have a say in the development, and can demand that things be done differently.
Your first response described 2 choices: Tourism remains, or tourism stops. The first choice, you noted, would lead to the second anyway, because tourism is killing the place. You rejected these choices and said there MUST be a third choice, though you had no idea what…
You only considered “tourism” as though it was an absolute, as though the present state of that industry was the only possible state for the industry. The “status quo.” You did not seem to consider at all the ‘manner’ or ‘way’ tourism is conducted. You assumed that in my first note I was proposing that tourism itself be ceased on Koh Tao, and you rejected the idea.
What I was actually proposing is that THE MANNER IN WHICH TOURISM IS CONDUCTED AT PRESENT be ceased, and that this change must be compelled by the tourists themselves, with help and organization provided by people like you who write blogs, and support from environmental activists and scientists, like me. And you, Alex, have the power, as one person with a voice, to make that happen. You could be the nexus point for such a change. You could save those reefs, and protect the economic interests of the Thai people on Koh Tao for generations by starting a movement to create significant changes. The power of supply and demand – the marketplace, as we say in America – will supply sustainable practices ONLY WHEN THE CUSTOMERS DEMAND THOSE PRACTICES!!
When the demand is absolute and the consequence is a significant drop in income, the supply of sustainable practices will be offered. When businesses that offer these practices and abide by sustainability demands start to thrive, the others will fall in line in order to compete. It is basic capitalism, which can be a good thing if the customers demand it to be so!!
If a sufficient number of tourists, especially those who care about the environment, were to pledge a serious commitment to not go to Koh Tao UNTIL THE ISSUES HAVE BEEN ADDRESSED and UNTIL THERE ARE PLACES THERE THAT MEET CERTAIN CRITERIA FOR RESPONSIBLE DEVELOPMENT, things would change, and quick!
I have a 13-point list of simple criteria, changes that are easy to implement, would not kill jobs (would actually create jobs for skilled workers!), and which could all be *****more than paid for with funds created by points on the list!!!!!***** Further, the overall profitability of the tourism industry would not be diminished, and the only loss of income would be absorbed in total by the foreign entity called PADI, who would see a drop in funds due to decreased diver certifications. Oh well – they are a for-profit corporation, and their investors can absorb the loss of profits more easily than Koh Tao can absorb the sewage that is being created there. (BTW you mentioned a smell in the high season due to “strains on the sewage system.” My ‘red pen’ says: There is NO SUCH ‘SYSTEM.’ It is all dumped into the ground and sea, totally raw.)
The commitment, like your “pledge” to not use plastic bags or support restaurants who serve shark, would have to be firm, and made public, and be made known to the business community on the island. A few thousand signatures on a petition would get noticed. If the number grew to 10,000 or more, that would be it. If only ONE YEAR went by with maybe a 1/3 drop in tourism, and if those people made it clear in blogs and direct letters to KT businesses that they chose not to go because of the environmental degradation, the KT businesses would respond. This is not a random opinion, it is based on studies conducted by business thinktanks in the US who do research on market trends.
That is all that is needed, and the rest will happen organically. Once a few changes are made, the benefits will becaome obvious and the costs will be seen to be nil, and the direction of the island will change dramatically.
We might even not be too late to save the reefs. But that deadline is fast approaching, as you saw if you read the report I linked you to – which was written in 2010, btw…
Here are a few of the 13 points, I will give you my full report via email if you are willing to give it serious thought…
1. (The first point is first because it will pay for all the rest!)
****demand that local Koh Tao contributions to any and all environmental charities be kept on Koh Tao and spent in total on the following environmental initiatives.****
Businesses, especially dive operators, who solicit, collect, and donate funds to charities based in foreign countries, are basically taking money away from initiatives to improve Koh Tao’s condition, and then hoping the charities will give a small amount of it back. Money which should be improving Koh Tao is paying salaries of managers in the United States and elsewhere.
One example: Project AWARE, the non-profit environmental charity associated with PADI dive operations, regularly gives questionable awards to KT dive operators, mostly based on fundraising efforts, not actions. The operators are subject to intense pressure from PADI to buy into the system. Project AWARE then does a few events a year on Koh Tao, mostly accomplished by local volunteers. PA takes the credit for these efforts, since they “motivate” the events and fund them with small grants. It all seems great, until you look at the numbers:
—-In a direct letter I received from PADI HQ for Asia, the Director of Quality Management touted that PADI and Project AWARE together, OVER THE LAST 6 YEARS, have donated the very impressive sum of “over THB 1,000,000 back to the community, the island, and the ocean.” Mooring buoys and trash pick-up were the main two expenses. Mooring buoys should be the responsibility of the dive industry anyway, and trash pick-ups are done by local volunteers.
But really – A MILLION sounds like a lot – if you are Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. But 1,000,000 Thai Baht is actually only about US$ 35,000, or maybe UK L15,000. In SIX YEARS.
—In contrast, Project AWARE has a program called ‘100% AWARE’ in which member shops are given this rating if they pledge to donate US$10 to PA for every diver they certify. Many KT shops are ‘100% AWARE’ shops. There is ONE SINGLE dive operator on Koh Tao – Ban’s Diving – which certified over 14,000 divers last year. Ban’s became “100% AWARE” in 2012, 3 years ago. So that ONE SHOP certified an estimated 40,000 divers since pledging to donate US$10 for each cert.
That equals US$400,000, or roughly THB 14,000,000.
This does not include other fundraising for PA, and is only one shop out of many, maybe 1/10th of the certs issued on KT. Project AWARE will not divulge exact numbers unless threatened by lawyers, but they have received, and this is a conservative estimate, in excess of THB100,000,000 in donations from KT tourists over the last 6 years, collected by dive shops and in direct fundraising campaigns. Over 100 million Baht, or US$3 million, UK L1.5 million! Likely much more…
BTW PA’s Director, in the USA, has an annual salary of over US$90,000, plus benefits and an expense account, plus bonuses. She earns in one year over 4 times what PADI and PA gave to the entire Koh Tao community, island, and ocean in 6 years!!!
This is insane, and must stop!
If all shops and Koh Tao activists organizations would withdraw from the Project AWARE fundraising machine, and put those donations into a general fund used only to create sustainable infrastructure on the island, there would be enough money to build and maintain every single item on this list of needed projects!!!
2. a system for recycling and trash to be processed and when necessary taken to mainland landfills.
3. an actual sewage treatment system based on modern technology and conforming to the highest standards of most Western nations.
4. a complete ban on single-container drinks which would be replaced by keg beer, soda fountains, and large, refillable water jugs used to fill personal non-disposable containers (which would sell like crazy with the “save Koh Tao” logo on them!). This would also solve the broken glass on the beach issue, and keg beer is BETTER!!
5. a demand that dive shops quit certifying divers and/or taking them to fragile reefs until they are properly trained in buoyancy skills and proper dive behavior and can demonstrate this mastery. This would prevent maybe 90+% of the direct damage caused by divers. This would only require an extra day or two be spent with students, and the courses could easily charge enough extra to make this a no-loss for the shops and instructors without becoming too expensive. And students would benefit greatly from this, more than they can know. (At present, a Koh Tao certification is considered marginal by most dive operators around the world. It could become the industry’s blue ribbon!!)
There is more, and they are as obvious and easy and good for the community and the island as what I listed. All paid for with existing funds which can easily be diverted from their current path of export to the USA.
And the beach clean-ups paid for by PA would still happen, but KOh Tao residents would get credit for their own efforts, not an American enterprise.
That was 5. I have details and budget projections for most, taken from US cost estimates of similar initiatives. There are 13 I have listed in total.
Would you like to see the complete list, and look at details and possible budgets? Are you at all interested in making this happen?
You have the power to be the initiator of this effort.
You have an “ethical responsibility” to promote “responsible tourism” – your words!!!!
Why not you???
If not, can you at least give me the “red pen” treatment and show me/tell me why not?? School me!!!
Hey Steven, again, you’ve got some great ideas here. However I think the reason you might be met with some resistance is that you are effectively calling for a boycott until these ideas are underway. While some might argue that is the most effective way to incite change, I know that personally I am not ready to pledge to stay off the island, so I know that I can’t ask my readers to do so either. Instead, I promote small, simple changes that will make only a negligible different to the person doing them but as a whole can make a great impact to the places we travel to — for example, using a Steripen so that you don’t have to use plastic water bottles. Right now, that’s how I’m doing my part. But if you feel passionately about your ideas, which you clearly do, I strongly encourage you to pursue them! Best of luck — I appreciate the enthusiasm for protecting our planet.
I look forward to continuing this conversation in 5 years or so. In the meantime, you have provided me with more assistance than you could possibly imagine. Of course I did not expect for you to hop on board the train of thought I shared. But I also, honestly, did not expect such an honest and well-formed response – not because of any view I have of you, but just based on the responses of others.
You impress me with your self-confidence and rationality, and I can only be humbled by your steadfast adherence to your personal values, and your willingness and ability to express them without any hesitation or obfuscation. If only I were so self-assured!!
Thank you. You have educated me in a way I never expected, and I am grateful. You are not at all what I expected from your blog. You are honest beyond reason, you should be proud of that.
I will say one thing however…There is a difference, both philosophically and in actuality, between a boycott and a refusal to purchase goods and services of an inferior quality, or which have safety or environmental impact issues. Tourism should not be any different than cars that burst into flame on impact, or plastic bags (which you are OK with boycotting?) or shark fin soup.
Just imagine if I said to you, “I can’t advocate for the boycotting of shark fin soup. I want to eat it, so I can’t ask others to stop. Instead, I’m going to do something else which has no impact on me personally, like give up plastic bags. If we all do that, then the ocean will be cleaner without it impacting ME!”
Or better yet: “Hey, I know the sharks are dying, but me not eating the soup isn’t going to change anything, and it will only hurt the small restaurant workers if we don’t eat at their place. Maybe I’ll have to stop eating it anyway, if they all die off, but if the two choices are not eat the soup, or eat it and kill the sharks and thus still not have soup to eat, then I cannot accept that those are the only two answers. There MUST be a third option, though I have no idea what, so bring me another bowl of shark fin soup, please – and one for my friend!”
What would you think about me if I said that?? I’d dearly like to know…