by Le Quynh Anh
As an environmental journalist, I am struck by how often the people whose job is to advocate for more environmentally conscious practices turn out to be so insensible in their own acts.
I remember at a workshop held by the Viet Nam Environment Administration last November on the revision of the current Environmental Protection law, some participants complained about the lack of a sense of respect and responsibility toward the environment among a large proportion of the public. They said this was one of the main reasons for pollution that has beset the country.
But hang on, take a quick look at the workshop organisers themselves. I am highly suspicious that they didn't have any better sense. Otherwise, why would they have printed the handout information on one side of the paper instead of both?
Plus, the pens in the package actually came from China. I guess they were not aware how much carbon dioxide had to be pumped into the air to carry all those pens to Viet Nam. What was wrong with using made-in Viet Nam pens?
Maybe they hadn't paid any heed to any of this. Yet they worked for the national agency in charge of environmental affairs.
Had it been a rare incident I would never bring it up. But the thing is I find this sort of practice nearly anywhere. Even at a regional forum fostering high-level policy dialogues among environmental officials, held in the capital last week, I found myself again carrying a heavy folder of documents printed on one-side of the page. It should have been 50 per cent lighter.
You might argue that these are only small matters but if they can't get the small things right, how can we expect them to pull off anything bigger?
It is all about the mindset that defines the approach. But it appears to me that their mindset is not tending to the environment.
Let me give another example. When I went to cover a public event for the campaign "Say no to nylon bags", the organising committee gave free T-shirts to the participants. The thing was that each T-shirt was wrapped in a nylon bag. Could it get any more ironic?
And even the very well-organised "Earth Hour" campaign has thrown up some questions.
It has been held in Viet Nam since 2009, with the aim to call on the public to turn off lights as a reminder that to adopt energy-saving practices. But the burning of candles used to replace lights could release large amounts of carbon dioxides into the atmosphere. Or gathering hundreds of thousands of people at celebrations in public places could create more pollution of the surrounding environment. Such is the counterproductive impact of a campaign that initially aims to help the environment.
As a senior expert at the United Nations Development Programme pointed out during a recent interview: the wasteful consumption of energy and natural resources is rampant.
The thing is, despite our awareness-raising efforts, it seems the old way of thinking towards the environment is so entrenched in our society that communication campaigns are far from enough to trigger any major shift in behaviour.
The current policies are not working as expected. We have to put smarter policies in place so people can feel the urge to change rather than going around with pompous logos, posters and messages.
For example, the root cause of the wasteful consumption of energy in Viet Nam is because energy here is comparatively cheap. It all comes back to the long-running policy of providing heavy subsidies for fossil fuel-based energy. As long as it is cheap, people will not care about what they waste.
We need to help government officials get more environmentally conscious. Legal instruments can play a decisive role in the public sector. I am sure as soon as there are specific regulations that make it mandatory for officials to adopt more eco-friendly practices, such as printing reports on both sides of the paper or using locally produced stationery or recycled paper or even no printing at all – the list goes on – you will see a huge shift.
These are just some examples of many approaches to imposing more eco-friendly practices on others. I have no doubt policy-makers in environmental affairs in Viet Nam are capable of formulating even better polices. What I am not sure about is their will to do it. Unless they put the environment ahead of everything else, it will be very difficult for them to get things right. — VNS