Editorial: April 2016 Let’s try to give a shit about the garbage

Whereas we all used to litter like a clutter of pregnant cats, most Thai people today are conscientious about garbage and recycling.

By | Fri 1 Apr 2016

I give a shit. Most people I know give a shit too.

If you spend any time online, especially on expat forums, but also on Citylife’s own comments sections, you will read a popular refrain many ignorant – or cynical – foreigners claim about Thai people; “they don’t give a shit,” and “nothing will change”.

Recently I attended a meeting about pollution, at the US Consulate. Sensible ideas were being bandied about, massive efforts and sacrifices promised and important data gathered. In excitement, I posted to my Facebook wall that I was chuffed at this year’s momentum.

Some of the replies to my post? Thais don’t give a shit, and nothing will change.

You know what? Millions give a shit. And plenty has changed.

Whereas we all used to litter like a clutter of pregnant cats, most Thai people today are conscientious about garbage and recycling. Sure, there is still garbage being dumped in naughty places, and you still see the odd school kid chucking an ice-cream wrapper out of a songtaew during rush hour – tsk tsk. But things used to be much worse. Public bins were a rarity in those old days, as was any public censure for littering, or any understanding of its ugliness and consequences. It all changed because of one – albeit powerful – woman. In the early 1980s Khun Ying Chodchoy Sophonpanich launched the Magic Eye campaign which helped sweep away Thailand’s litterbugs and since then we have become a changed nation due to an incredibly fun and pioneering marketing campaign. Magic Eyes were everywhere; staring at you from stickers in public places, as a catchy tune heard in every schoolyard and as mascots dancing you into shame, should you dare to litter. Ubiquitous littering was thrown into the bins of social conscience.

Then there was HIV, which in the early ’90s spread throughout Thailand like…well, HIV in the ’80s in America. Mechai Viravaidy, fondly (though I suppose, for him, rather unfortunately) known as Mr. Condom, ahem, spearheaded a campaign, which was not only globally acclaimed and used as a model worldwide, but was effective in reducing the rate of HIV infections in our nation by around 90% within a decade. Not only that, when he started working on family planning in the early ‘70s, the average Thai family had seven children; by 2000, the number was reduced to a more sensible 1.5. Mr. Condom convinced a previously heads-in-the-sands government to wake up to the reality of HIV and made sure that condoms were available to all citizens; traffic police had stashes to hand out to anyone who asked, every hotel mini bar had condoms, taxi drivers, bus conductors, teachers were giving them away like candy, and even monks were blessing these “weapons of mass protection”. A cute mascot, Captain Condom, relayed a serious message in a way which was relatable to all and habits as well as lives changed. It’s estimated that 7.7 million Thai lives were saved as a direct result of Mr. Condom’s dedicated and creative work.

The point is shit gets done. It requires vision, research, cooperation, strategy, education and sacrifice. I’m not just talking about pollution, but all the social ails. Yes, we are frustrated at Thai politics, with the degradation of the environment, with the appalling education system, with insidious corruption, with the governor’s ban of topless muscly men dancing on stages during Songkran…wait, that’s just me. But the list goes on. And while we can sit on our collective bums, shrugging our shoulders and saying that nothing will ever change or get done, I hope that we won’t.

In every sector, amongst every problem, behind every crisis, there are Thai people who won’t sit, instead standing up to fight; and those who won’t shrug, but are willing to shake things up. If you don’t have the knowhow, resources or will to affect change, then at least offer your support to those who do. Something as simple as clicking on an online petition can be done with minimal effort and with a bit more, a lot more can be achieved.

Yes, I know one shouldn’t feed the trolls, and arguing with them online is simply a waste of time. After all, trolls seem to feed off sense and sensibility. But if you are a naughty little troll reading this on your computer at home, fingers hovering over a keyboard ready to gobble up any crumbs of sense being bandied about, I urge you to please take a moment and move that cursor elsewhere so that you can turn your scorn and apathy into outrage and action.

No nation is peopled with perfection, but every nation has citizens who are capable of vision and greatness. They need your support, not scathing comments.