While bike touring there is plenty of time to wonder about what I’m seeing and ask questions but never enough time to stop and get answers.
It has been harder than I expected to keep writing about environmental issues while traveling. It’s not for lack of exposure to it: I have biked through grim deforested landscapes, inhaled putrid black clouds of pollution coughed out the back of trucks and can rarely pedal more than a few minutes without seeing trash as we’ve biked up through southeast Asia and now across China. But I know that without an understanding of the specific local context that has created these problems I cannot know why these things are happening, what’s in the way of a solution, or even perhaps that this is not too bad because there are good things I haven’t seen – national parks away from roads and out of my sight, for example.
So rather than try to provide a report of any particular environmental story or issue, I thought I’d share some of the questions I’ve been asking myself…
- Why are they burning so many acres of their hills in northern Laos and Vietnam?
- Why do they burn piles of leaves but not the mountains of trash?
- Why does someone at the food processing company think that each cookie needs to be wrapped in foil, cradled in a plastic tray, wrapped in another foil wrapper and then, just in case, wrapped in another plastic package?
- What happens to the circles of friends and neighbors when entire villages are relocated because a hydro-electric dam floods their valley?
- How can the Chinese grow such tidy fields of nutritious vegetables and build with such aesthetic finesse also create and tolerate such impressive amounts of pollution, litter and waste?
I tried to write down some of the answers I have come up with after riding my bike through these perplexing landscapes but they are just rambling train-of-thought speculations. What I’ve realized (for the hundredth time in my life) is that solutions must be local. There are no wave of the hand, cure-all global solutions. The travelers I meet who say “oh they should just…” are wrong. Without genuine understanding of the local ecology, culture, language, political, economic and social contexts, an outsider like myself has no solutions to offer.
Frustrating? Certainly. Particularly because I have not lived long enough in one place to feel that I am a true local or expert. I guess I’ll stick to asking questions. Here is one more: Will the beautiful roads I’ve ridden and the ones I’m saving for another day still be here for my next bike trip or will they, too, be damaged in the name of growth and development?