Notes from the Field

Earth Day 2008: Finding Pogo and The Geography of Hope

April 16, 2008

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post on this blog about going to the Yosemite Valley with a group of Mongolian educators, and I talked about rivers and bugs and the importance of putting environmental monitoring tools directly in the hands of Mongolian citizens (click here to see a short film on the group visiting Yosemite).

After the Yosemite trip, I visited once more with the Mongolians before they returned home, this time along the shores of the Pacific Ocean at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, where they were continuing their study of water quality monitoring.

Seemed strange to me ” isn’t Mongolia landlocked? What’s the point of teaching them about water quality in the ocean of all places? I posed the question to Chris Plante, The Asia Foundation’s Director for Environmental Programs.

His answer reveals, as it turns out, the crux of how the Foundation is approaching Asia’s environmental crises ” by viewing the region (or, more accurately, the world) as one vast, interconnected system.

“Water flows,” Chris responded. “And just because a country is surrounded on all sides by land, doesn’t mean its water won’t eventually find its way to the ocean. This is central to the concept of a watershed, which looks at the world’s water resources as all part of an interconnected system. We brought the Mongolians here to help them understand that everything is connected ” Mongolian river water could easily wash up right here on the shores of San Francisco.”

The implications there are obvious, and I found myself suddenly much more concerned with the water quality of a score of countries on the other side of the globe. I also thought about the clouds of pollution reportedly sweeping over the Pacific from China ” it struck me as ironic that U.S. companies say they’ve cleaned up by reducing domestic steel production, but the fallout still ends up right back on our doorstep. As with water, so with air. Chris’s approach to global interconnectedness was starting to make more sense.

“We have to extract ourselves from this localized mindset,” Chris continued. Societies, he explained, can no longer afford to be ecological islands.

Globalization has become the poster child of the 21st century, and yet it is largely spoken of in economic terms ” already-clich├ęd phrases about borders blurring and economies growing closer. But today’s environmental crises are inextricably linked to these very patterns. The environmental impacts of Asia’s rapid-growth economies are no longer confined within borders; they travel along the routes of supply chains and trade winds. From the perspective of a global ecological system, outsourcing American steel production to China suddenly doesn’t solve the problem. It seems that if the globalization ethos is to withstand the test of time, it will be by our linking “progress” to a new set of standards ” ones that include sustainability.

It might be useful, here on Earth Day 2008, to recall the Walt Kelly comic strip, Pogo, published 27 years ago this week, wherein the eponymous character declares, upon wading through his trash-strewn wetland home: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The urgency of this nearly three-decade-old cartoon persists today. The remnants of production and consumption cycles are impacting our world in immediate as well as unpredictable ways. Humans are choking the atmosphere, melting icecaps, and poisoning rivers. And while no blame can be heaped upon any one group for the mess as it stands, government, business, and civil society all have to have a hand in remedying it.

Much of Asia is fortunate in that there is still potential to develop good environmental practices. Many of their economies are young and flexible enough to include sustainability in their portfolios. As for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Program, Mongolia is a proving ground of sorts. The Securing Our Future program applies the system metaphor to an issue central to Mongolia’s development ” mining ” and recruits everyone with a stake (in this case, mining companies plus all Mongolian citizens) in the cause of ensuring that it develops sustainably and responsibly. Everyone is affected, and everyone plays a role.

Returning briefly again to the beach, it’s important to note that this century will see clean water scarcity as one of its major crises. Already, 700 million people in the Asia-Pacific region lack daily access to clean water. Water is one of the most vital resources, and one of the most neglected. It is why the Mongolian group traveled thousands of miles to learn how to test and measure its cleanliness and establish benchmarks. By approaching every country and its own unique circumstances as part of the solution to cleaning up global watersheds, the Foundation is working towards achieving a critical mass in Asia, when the integration of policy reform and clean technology will perpetuate itself as the model for sustainable growth. To this end, the Foundation is working across Asia on projects similar to Securing Our Future to develop and maintain clean water sources in Laos, China, and Vietnam.

We cannot become the enemy Kelly indicted through his possum mouthpiece. As economies grow, and with them the globalization juggernaut, fully realizing our role as stewards of the earth should become part of our collective zeitgeist. Reclaiming our connection with nature, as the conservationist author Wallace Stegner wrote, “can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

Matthew Pendergast is The Asia Foundation’s Communications Assistant. He can be reached at mpendergast@asiafound.org. To watch a short film about the group of Mongolian educators discussed below, please click here.

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