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Letter from Bangkok
Alan AtKisson, 3 Jun 05

Here's how ten intensive days in Bangkok -- spent training sustainability change agents, government officials, and business leaders, from Thailand and from all over Asia -- come to an end:

Dashing through wet chaotic streets, dodging noodle vendors and motor scooters and the occasional skinny cat, short-cutting into the high-end shopping Emporium, past Louis Vuitton and Philosophy cosmetics, out past the second-hand bookstore (which, oddly, had a fine collection of very recent books on sustainability issues) and into the hotel and up the elevator to the room in order to switch on the TV just in time to watch the Prime Minister complete the countdown.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1, click. At that moment, fourteen million Thai households, whose TVs are showing only this show (the PM has ensured that it's on all seven channels), are supposed to turn off one unused light. Cameras with aerial views show houses, skyscrapers, whole cities darkening -- not fully, but noticeably. And a small moving graph on the screen starts to register the change in energy consumption.

For five full minutes, the line on the graph snakes down and down and down, and the space above it turns a pretty red color, showing exactly how much energy this national exercise is saving compared to the same time yesterday. In just five minutes, Thailand's national electricity consumption has gone down by over 700 megawatts -- enough to shut down one of the country's fourteen large hydropower stations.

My friend Chirapol Sintunawa is a happy man tonight, because the whole exercise was originally his idea. He pushed the light switch on national TV like this for the first time several years ago. Now, it's become an annual event, with greater energy savings every time -- and with the Prime Minister himself leading the charge (or rather, reduction in charge). Energy conservation is part of the PM's national agenda.

Chirapol is a professor at Mahidol University ... among many other things. He also runs an NGO that promotes environmental awareness and trains teams of people in systems thinking. He teaches Buddhist monks about the greenhouse effect by taking them into greenhouses. He teaches doctors about opium production by taking them into the hill tribe areas. He helps make public service commercials (very funny ones) about everything from not wasting your food to quitting smoking. Yesterday, while I was running a workshop for business leaders on sustainable development, he was advising the Bank of Thailand's Governor on how they could save even more energy.

In the car on the way to the airport, I call Chirapol on my cell phone to congratulate him. "We can only do this fourteen times." he jokes. "Then we run out of dams to shut down!" "The ironic thing is," I tell him, "that in order to participate in your national exercise, I had to turn on the TV, as well as a couple of lights, so that I could turn one off!"

No, wait, this is how ten days of consulting and training workshops with some truly remarkable people, who are working to promote sustainability and conserve nature in very challenging circumstances (think about trying to conserve elephant habitat in Aceh, post tsunami), come to an end: As I stack my bags up near the airport entrance, a plush van pulls up, and out of it step five impossibly gorgeous women, who are also very, very tall. Everyone within fifty meters stops whatever they are doing and looks for a good ten seconds; the men keep looking a bit longer than that, for these are the also-rans in the Miss Universe pageant, which just ended.

The Prime Minister was also there when the new Miss Universe was crowned. The Miss Universe Pageant (no links here, you can find plenty on that if you really want to, the darn thing is actually owned by Donald Trump) was also part of the national agenda of Thailand. The two agenda items do not seem to have any relationship at all, of course; I am very sure indeed that none of these young ladies -- whose cosmetic cases look like nuclear code-box carriers -- turned off a light switch at 8:45 pm this evening.

Thailand, whose Buddhist culture gives it an extraordinary flexibility, is known for its ability contain paradoxes. I'm told that the mayor of Pattaya, capital city of the country's famous go-go bars, stood on the main street amidst the neon, looked right at the television news cameras, and declared that there was "no prostitution here." Meanwhile, in a conversation with a business consultant, I learned that such bars are a hot investment commodity in the global market, and the quality of the prostitutes figures prominently in the selling price.

My last real visit here was in 1982, and my, oh my, how (some) things have changed. Big, fancy cars are stuck in traffic everywhere. Cell phones glued to every ear. The whole population is noticeably much taller: milk consumption has gone up by a factor of 12 during those years, among many other developments. Lots of "world-class" stuff: metro system, movie theaters, prominent global brands. But there are still lots of simple, world-class food stalls on the street as well.

The whole system, and its growth, looks terribly unsustainable of course -- without some significant changes in course. That's what my friends here are trying to do. The hotels have an environmentally-friendly rating system, the Green Leaf (Chirapol also helped start that program). You can find fair-trade eco-products mixed among the French designer labels.

My colleagues and associates here are Robert Steele (a Thai-ized American) and Gonthong Lourdesamy; they've organized everything, and I just show up and perform. They work for an NGO called "Magic Eyes," known mostly for its earlier litter campaigns. The group's original strategy called in the Buddha, the ancestors, and the inner Self -- a panoply of watching "Magic Eyes" -- to raise awareness about not throwing trash in the streets or in the river. Now they now lead environmental education programs and, for the last several years, our training workshops in Asia on sustainable development.

Sometimes they use a converted rice barge, on which thirty people can live and learn together while they learn about cooperation and innovation in closed systems, and the reality of Thai community life. Sometimes, they head off to Nepal or Shanghai to run workshops for a regional UN program. Their experience with my group's tools exceeds my own in some ways now. And for nearly four years, they've been planting the seeds that have grown into this set of advanced trainings, with Thai and SE Asian leaders.

My client is actually the Asian Productivity Organization, based in Tokyo, and the affiliated Thai Productivity Institute. Apparently, they "get" the link between sustainability and efficiency, quality, and innovation, or they would not have brought me here. I'm grateful to find receptive audiences to what are still, in this part of the world, very new ideas.

No, wait, this is how ten days working in Bangkok come to an end: Sitting in the airplane, and thinking about Robert and Gonthong, and the wonderful people in our workshops. The people who are going home to run workshops themselves with village leaders in Aceh, or with journalists in Vietnam, or with civil servants in Thailand, or with teachers and executives in Australia. Or the Thai business leaders who are now starting to think seriously about the system impacts of CSR and sustainability on even small companies in Thailand (I gave them Gil Friend's Declaration, too). The people who are trying to help nudge SE Asia on a more sustainable course. The people who taught me, while I was teaching them.

This is how it ends: drifting off to sleep, leaving the "land of smiles", bringing one of those smiles home with me, on my own face.

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Too bad we don't have clever periodic Public Service commercials on U.S. television to regularly remind folks to get up and turn off unused lights.


Posted by: JC on 3 Jun 05

Alan, thank you for this wonderful report from the scene!

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 4 Jun 05

I am very sure indeed that none of these young ladies ... turned off a light switch at 8:45 pm this evening

If both the light switchoff and Miss Universe are such fashionable events, how are you sure?

Posted by: Adam Burke on 5 Jun 05

I did a vacation in Thailand with my family last April, and one of the things I noticed is that Thais, if they have air conditioners at all, like to use them at their coldest settings. Like most Germans, we couldn't cope with the rapid temperature changes and used ours only sparingly, and usually not at all while we were in the room - which was incomprehensible to the Thais...

And the amount of air conditioning in Bangkok was amazing. The city is steaming hot even during the night...

Posted by: J├╝rgen Hubert on 8 Jun 05



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