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Saving The Earth In Malaysia

Yeah, don’t throw it out, turn off the lights …

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia— I took my kids out to a science fair at KLCC today. The theme of the festival was “Little Plans for the Big Planet” or something like that, and there are all of these 20-somethings going around telling people to recycle and not to use electricity because someone told them that was the way to save the earth or something like that. “Upcycling” was the word of the day.

Then this 18-year old at some exhibit begins lecturing me about garbage. “Make sure you recycle,” he urged me. “When you throw something in the garbage it goes to a landfill and creates methane gas that makes the world warmer.”

He said this as though it was a brand new concept that nobody has ever heard before — which I guess in Asia it kind of is. I was in first generation save-the-world territory, a sure sign that a culture has crossed the divide from third world to internationalized. Previously, people here had bigger things to worry about than whether or not someone flips off the lights when they leave a room.

Anyway, I realized that it would serve no purpose to tell this kid that some of the most environmentally devastated places on the planet just happen to be those with high prevalences of recycling facilities — i.e. China’s infamous paper, plastic, battery recycling towns. Recycling is not green.

If you want to save the world, governments need to slap corporations with massive pollution taxes. If a company wants to package something in a non-biodegradable package that creates a financial burden on the municipality to dispose of it for the next century then they need to pay for it. If they want to pollute the air and the sea then they are going to have to cough up the cash. It has to come from above, not below. Reducing, reusing, and recycling are too far downstream to have any substantial impact. You need to hit at the source that spews this shit out.

While we are not technologically capable of doing this yet, we are getting very close. I just interviewed a guy the other day who was telling me about one of his company’s new technologies that can measure how much each individual ship pollutes the air and the sea each time it pulls into port …

But does these public awareness campaigns have any impact on such government that can really make a difference?

Yes and no. However, I believe it’s probably far more effective to have wall murals about how much packaging waste companies like Apple create than telling everyone to unplug their electronics when they’re not using them to save a minuscule amount of electricity. Or, hey, let’s tell Kuala Lumpur not to light up the Petronas Towers at night — that will really save some electricity.

These grassroots environmental campaigns are more self-empowerment trips designed to create the illusion that “we” or “me” matters than movements that can really change anything. They are more or less distractions.

Anyway, if you haven’t noticed I have a particularly strong abhorrence for proselytizing in any form — the good guys are not going around force feeding their beliefs to random people in the streets.

However, my kids and I had a good time at the event. My daughters did an activity that consisted of coloring and decorating little paper animals that are just going to be thrown out and stuck them onto a wall that said in large painted letters, “Don’t throw it out!”


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Filed under: Environment, Malaysia, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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