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World Environment Day: Using Leverage for Environmental Progress

June 3, 2009

I think it was in Bangkok in 1995 where I first met Dr. Chirapol Sintunawa.  He gave me a tour of his sustainable development experiments, which included passive solar building design, eco-friendly landscaping, and the first environmental audits for Thai hotels.  Today, Green Leaf-certified hotels are established throughout Thailand; and Dr. Chirapol and his graduate students – and business and government partners – are busily expanding the reach and impact of Green Leaf certification across Southeast Asia.

However, the Green Leaf program gives us just a glimpse into what Chirapol and his associates are up to. Chirapol is constantly on the move. He trains students in sustainability at his eco-camp in Kanchanaburi; discusses bike lanes with transportation authorities in Bangkok; lectures about water-saving toilets at public events such as rock concert intermissions; and travels around the world to learn new ideas and to inspire others to think more deliberately about the sustainability of our one-planet life. 

Dr. Chirapol Sintunawa is a pioneer in sustainable development practice and in systems-thinking.  There are eight essential qualities in systems-thinking: seeing the whole picture, understanding the power of leverage, looking for interdependencies, understanding mental models, paying attention and giving voice to the long-term, “going wide” to see complex cause-and-effect relationships, seeing where unanticipated consequences emerge, and looking deeper to focus on structure. Recently, he told me that of these essential qualities, he thought the most important one was leverage.  He encouraged me, as a systems-thinker, to focus on leverage. And then he told this story:

One day, Chirapol had a meeting with the head monk of an important Buddhist temple in the north of Thailand.  Dignitaries often came to the temple to receive the monk’s blessings and Chirapol wanted to connect his work on sustainable development with the values and work of the Buddhist community at the temple.  In the course of their conversation, Chirapol brought out a compact fluorescent light bulb for the monk to see.  Chirapol discussed the merits of eco-efficiency, using the light bulb as an example.  He also discussed the relationship of Buddhist values to social and ecological values, which were represented by sustainable development technologies and behavior changes.  Chirapol was pleased to have the monk’s ear. Near the end of their conversation, the monk turned and asked Dr. Chirapol if he would give him the compact fluorescent bulb.  At this point, Chirapol stopped and thought for a moment before answering.  Then he said he would give it to the monk under one condition: that Chirapol would get to choose where the compact fluorescent bulb went.  The monk assented and Chirapol told him to replace the lightbulb at the monk’s front door with the new compact fluorescent bulb.

From then on, the monk always pointed out the compact fluorescent bulb to all of his guests and visitors as he greeted them at his front door.  He became an enthusiastic pitchman for compact fluorescent bulbs to everyone who visited him.  And, according to Chirapol, the monk was very good at discussing the importance of conservation and environmental stewardship in terms that embraced both sustainable development and Buddhism.  Chirapol knew that if he had simply given the compact fluorescent bulb to the monk, the monk would have taken it into his study to use for his own reading lamp.  And the compact fluorescent bulb would perhaps never have been seen again.

Leverage.  As the saying goes: With the right place to stand, we can move the world.  On the eve of World Environment Day, we need to focus on using the leverage we have, no matter how small, to improve the environment.

Chris Plante is The Asia Foundation’s Director for Environment Programs. He can be reached at cplante@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Christopher Plante

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