I stared at the computer screen. What I saw was a whiny girl, talking through a megaphone and telling people what to do. That girl was me, leading the Strike for Climate Change in Bangkok, which I organized as part of the global #FridaysForFuture Climate Strike on May 24, 2019, when 1.3 million young environmental activists skipped school to demand climate justice and a sustainable future.
*This article is part of "Perspectives Asia #8: Asia for Future"
Many people had filmed me during the march in Bangkok and sent me the recordings. In the video, I looked furious – and I was. I have always been, considering how my city deals with environmental issues. I demanded that more trees be planted and that all necessary measures be taken to accomplish climate justice. I like to think that I was doing my job as an environmentalist and activist, but when I re-watched the video, I felt I sounded like a frightened teenager, yelling in the streets of Bangkok with a megaphone and having only a few hundred supporters behind me. We criticized politicians and corporations for their environmental destruction and human exploitation – for valuing economic growth over sustainable cities. We walked through Bangkok’s busy Sukhumvit Road and admonished passers-by for their unsustainable lifestyles and wasteful consumption, which values quick, cheap, pretty, and easy, thus fueling an industry driven by the exploitation of natural resources. Bangkok is one of the cities with the lowest number of public green spaces . Consequently, I demanded more parks and spoke out against shopping malls. In a country that is one of the biggest producers of ocean waste, I advocated for marine life conservation and shamed plastic consumption.
Climate Strike Thailand was founded out of frustration. I figured if no one was going to talk about what is wrong with our government’s priorities, then I would. Since I first fell in love with nature on an environmental science field trip in high school, I have spent a huge chunk of my time convincing those around me to feel the same. Throughout my time in university, I have exhorted my family to recycle more and bugged my friends to eat less meat. Each day, the importance of sustainable living grew on me and I shared more about it too. Those who read my articles care for the planet. In fact, they always have. Some people truly care and it is not easy to convince those who do not.
The night before the global climate strike, I thought up a list of five feasible and effective developments for the environment that I wanted to see most in Bangkok: 1) declaring a climate emergency, 2) improved public transportation, 3) more renewable energy sources, 4) more economic incentives for sustainable businesses, and 5) more green space. I tried my best to consider all regulatory and technological limitations, asking experts and consulting the internet about each of my demands. I posted a petition on social media, and my followers shared it. I repeated the demands during my strike – and people listened. Reporters interviewed me and I told them why our systems have to change and how our politicians do not care. But what do I know? I am just a communications undergrad student who loves trees and wants more of them. I do not know if I could tell you exactly on what areas our government should spent the budget or how to build a new urban forest. These self-doubts racked me.
The other day, I sat down for dinner with my uncle. “I need to know everything about Thailand’s Energy Master Plan,” I told him. I was beginning to question my critique of our country’s environmental management. Sure, I used to intern at Greenpeace and read a lot of environmental and science news, but in the end I must admit that I am not an expert. However, I need to be informed, if I am to follow one of the few rules that I have for my climate strikes: Do not say things you do not know to be true. Do not accuse people of things they did not do. And do not underline problems no one can fix. We do not want to become one sided activists fighting against politicians, but rather their friends, pointing out what they can fix and how we can help. This is not just limited to climate justice protests. This applies to our daily lives. It is true for philosophical debates with your friends and discussions about life changing decisions with your parents. It should be a guiding principle when you argue with some stranger on the internet or talk politics. Unlike me, my uncle is not a 21-year-old who mostly works behind a laptop. He is the president of a renewable energy company with 30 years experience in the energy market. He has seen the industry’s development and contraction, its politics and economics. He has seen how it has changed and how it can change.
The energy business is a complex and complicated one, and certainly not an industry that can be understood with just a few hours of online reading and headline skimming. My uncle tells me that many in Thailand‛s public and private sectors are shifting to renewable energy sources, and before he said that, it did not occur to me how much progress we have already made. To be fair, adults are trying to make the world a better and more sustainable place. In fact, they have tried for a long time. They spent decades fulfilling our science-fiction fantasies of flying machines and wireless devices. We kids need a power grid that is up 24/7 in order to post our daily Instagram stories. We need fossil-fuel power plants to run the cars we drive on the road trips we dream of. If they took away our smartphones, which rely on mining metals, we would all be complaining. Without their inventions, we would still be cave dwellers. Now it is our turn to try and improve the world the older generations handed us, as they did in their time.
Still, for most people in countries like Thailand, there is far more to worry about than distant polar bears living near the melting North Pole. There are minimum-wage construction workers who worry about making ends meet, and students who worry about getting good grades. There are rich business owners who worry about the unstable economy and their unpredictable stocks. There are busy parents who worry about their careers and the future of their impulsive teenagers. And there are the impulsive teenagers who worry about the number of likes on their Facebook photos and their number of Instagram followers. Not everyone in Bangkok prioritizes the fate of a forest over the construction of a skyscraper. Not everyone prefers hiking and camping to window shopping and fine dining. Not everyone likes reading about the evolution of animals and the biology of plants better than watching blockbuster films and Netflix thrillers. Not everyone understands the science of climate change or the impacts it has on us, and not everyone cares. Not everyone has the money to install solar panels, and not everyone has the time to contemplate a man-made mass extinction.
So, how is an environmentalist like me supposed to persuade millions of Bangkokians to stop using plastic straws and hurting turtles, plant more trees and reduce carbon emissions? Do people even care about turtles, or do they just want to make sure their iced latte does not spill on their shirt as they sip it? Do people even like trees and parks any more, or do they just want to look at their phones and drive around in their cars all day?
As someone who grew up attending international schools, hanging out with foreign friends, and consuming Western media, I figured I was not the best person to be telling Thai people what to do. Despite my Thai nationality, I am only an outsider trying to convince others to care about something. Changing an entire culture and the mindset of a people is not easy. So today, I ask myself: How can I help them, so that they can help me? What can I do for them, and what can they do for me? What do we all want – whether we are rich or poor, young or old, student or parent, janitor or entrepreneur, religious or atheist, local or expat? What are our main motivations and core values? How can I frame climate action as a win-win situation for everyone? How can people benefit from environmentalism while achieving the same things they want and remaining the same people they are? I know, we all like to eat good food and breathe clean air, and I have tried that simple approach. But as long as the supermarkets are stocked and the air conditioners working, environmental conservation will appear unnecessary for most people in Bangkok – and probably also in those parts of the world that are not on the front lines of climate change. The world is not going to blow up today, and it probably will not blow up tomorrow either. But for those who are bothered by the fact that it will someday, and that we can only prevent this from happening by acting now, the question is: How can we show the people what they can have now, instead of threatening them with what they will lose later, that is, how can we present climate action as the better alternative?
Let us start with a simple example. As long as they keep their jobs, most people with an average income do not have to worry about their basic needs. On the other hand, low income laborers are struggling to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. While harvesting enough crops during a drought period may not be what most people worry about, earning enough money for groceries and rent during a recession is. How can we help make sustainable living more economical and accessible for those who already have hundreds of problems to worry about every day? Instead of telling busy workers to buy less single-serving snacks so that whales won‛t swallow the garbage, it is better to tell them that buying in bulk will help them save money in the long run. Instead of telling exhausted office employees to stop driving to work, tell them how public transportation can save them time. Make environmentalism cheap and easy. Make it quick and convenient.
Meanwhile, middle-income office employees and students may be more focused on their psychological needs. Teenagers buy new clothes to express their personalities and frequent hip cafes to fit in with their friends. White-collar workers seek out the cheapest flights to travel the world and post photos on social media to impress their colleagues. How can we make sustainable consumption cooler, hipper, prettier and trendier, while also making it easy and affordable? Instead of telling college kids to stop going on shopping sprees to reduce production, tell them how minimalism is trending. Tell them why fast fashion hurts people and the planet. Instead of telling backpackers how cheap flights pollute and why wildlife tourism sucks, tell them how traveling by train is now cool and volunteering to plant trees is hip. Better yet, show them how easy it really is to travel by train and how meaningful it can be to plant trees. Make environmentalism cool. Make it a trend.
As for high-income entrepreneurs, chances are they want an even higher income. Corporations want more revenue, while governments want a better GDP. How can we make sustainable industries and systems better for business? Instead of pressuring corporations to stop exploiting natural resources, support businesses that source eco-friendly materials. Instead of demanding that governments divest themselves from fossil fuels because of their ecological impact, tell them to invest in clean energy as this brings economic advantages. Make environmentalism practical and logical. Make it profitable.
It is a challenge to advocate for climate action because it involves every aspect of our daily lives – from the food we choose to eat, the clothes we choose to wear, the ways we choose to commute, to the houses we choose to live in, the jobs we choose to do, and the words we choose to speak. At the same time, it is an opportunity because we can effect change in just about all of the areas mentioned. We cannot expect to reach everyone with a single solution to climate change, and thus we should try to engage people with approaches that are tailored to their lifestyles. The key is to find out what they value most, how they are affected, and how we can get them on board for the fight against the climate crisis. The key is to make everyone wanting to do it, not forcing everyone to do it, and to understand what they really want each day, rather than telling them what they will need in the future. It is to offer everyone something they can gain, regardless of who they are or where they come from, instead of intimidating them with what they may lose due to climate change. In such a way, we can make environmentalism a win-win situation for everyone.
 Chandran, Rina, 2019. “Mall or park? In crowded Bangkok, ‘last’ open space stirs debate”, Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-landrights-planning/mall-or-park-in-crowded-bangkok-last-open-space-stirs-debate-idUSKCN1Q002J
 Styllis, George, 2018. “Thailand falling behind in global battle with plastic waste“ Nikkei Asian Review. https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Thailand-falling-behind-in-global-battle-with-plastic-waste
This post is also a part of What Climate Activist Say <https://th.boell.org/en/what-climate-activists-say> by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Southeast Asia - 2020.