Thursday, June 17, 2010

"No Impact Man" as seen from Cambodia

For the observant, browsing through the bootleg DVD shops here can be quite rewarding. Firstly, the covers were definitely designed by non-native speakers of English, because their hype quotes on the front of the box are sometimes ambivalent or downright negative about the film. My favorite was for "Step Up 2: The Streets," which proudly displayed the faint praise, "It's no Stomp the Yard, but it's alright!"

There are also curiosities of selection. While you're guaranteed to have the current blockbusters and popular tv show box sets, there are always certain unusual offerings, like 8-in-1 selections of Oscar winners from the 20s and 30s or 9/11 conspiracy documentaries. But more to the point, there are a ton of quality documentaries available, I reckon as the joint result of backpacker/NGO-worker demand and ease of supply (I'm guessing the maker of a movie about philosophers talking is maybe not as zealous about copyright infringement as the big studios. After all, for small players in the creative arts, obscurity is a far greater threat than piracy.) As a result of this, I got to watch the wonderfully entertaining documentary, No Impact Man.

I really liked it, and it spurred a couple of thoughts:

First, the inclusion of Bevan's family as a no-impact unit made the project infinitely more compelling. Watching his wife react to and deal with each successive phase of the project not only made for 21st century situation comedy, but also deep reflections on personal development, modern disconnection, and what it means to live according to your ideals while still being part of a group. 

Secondly, it made me consider how much less of an ecological footprint I've had over my last two years in Cambodia, far less than I would have created if I had been in the states at the time. I hand-wash about two-thirds of my laundry, I ride my bicycle quite a bit (and when I don't, I take moto-taxis), and I eat mostly food that originated somewhere in Southeast Asia, even the french-style baguettes I favor (Thanks, colonialism.)

Admittedly, Cambodians use a ton of plastic bags, though I'm pretty sure that they don't realize that the bags aren't biodegradable-- it's just the continuation of a culture of littering that was harmless when your 'packaging' consisted of palm leaves. I tried to save shopping bags to use for trashbags, but I now have a huge bag-of-bags under my counter that's inexorably accumulated over the last year. I do have a fridge and an air-conditioner, which means that I still use a lot more electricity than the average Cambodian (who is lucky if he or she is even connected to the power grid). No one here uses toilet paper, instead they opt for the low-tech bidet approach via a sprayer hose like the one you may have on your kitchen sink. It also makes it easy to spot-clean your bathroom floor, which is useful because here the entire bathroom acts as the shower. 

I also do a lot of cooking for myself using food I buy at the market, which was something I never did in the states. I don't eat a ton of meat, either, but what I do eat I try to go for Cambodian meat rather than Australian-imported stuff. When I return to the US I hope to keep up as much of these lifestyle as possible, though it will be a bit of a let-down to realize that the local products there will be, I don't know, parsnips and turnips, instead of juicy mangoes and heirloom bananas (My students were shocked to find that there was only one kind of banana in America; the uniform bananas we eat in the states were bred to survive transport from Central America, not for tastiness.) I'll probably also be working a more intensive job, so I won't have as much time to cook as I do now. Still, living in Cambodia has opened my eyes to so many things that I just didn't think about before coming here. 

Which brings me to my final point. As we try and plot out snazzy and eco-friendly visions of human organization in the future, one aspect is rarely included: servants. This came up when we were watching Bevan scrub his kitchen counter with some combination of Baking Soda, Borax, and/or White Vinegar. "Why doesn't he just hire someone to clean with that environmental stuff?" My friend, who was watching it at the time, endured six months of domestic agony before giving up and hiring one of the people in her building to come in and clean once a week. The family could use the money, and she doesn't lose her mind every time things get a little bit messy.
The very idea of having a servant offends our [im]pious and sometimes overly self-congratulatory democratic instincts-- the same instincts, of course, that historically led the US government to continually intervene in Latin America for its 'interests,' which seem to exclude the promotion of democracy abroad. We cannot imagine ourselves ordering around a scullery maid, but the plain fact is, the amazing chemicals and "labor-saving devices" of the 20th century enabled people to get rid of their hired help and do it themselves. The labor you saved was the contracted labor of other people, particularly live-in servants. But really, we just moved it elsewhere. Instead of paying a real live person with room, board, and money

I know it might offend your delicate sensibilities to suggest it, Dear Reader, but maybe the world needs fewer appliances and more servants. Last time I checked, people could use the jobs, a  lot more than we could use a Roomba or whatever crap is being hawked on infomercials these days. The other problem is that the kind of people for whom domestic service is an attractive opportunity tend to come from the developing world, and then you get into knots of ethnic exploitation. In order to make domestic service feasible for middle class families and tolerable for the workers, the cost of living probably needs to drop steeply, and lord knows what kind of deflationary madness might happen then. 

So I don't have the answers, but I think it's a question worth asking:  So much of the low-impact environmentalist ethos centers on rejecting modern "conveniences" for the poisonous opiates they are, embracing a more human mode of existence, and taking on the consequent increase in work as a return to traditional patterns. Human labor is, ultimately, a sustainable and renewable resource, (though it raises far more questions of dignity and equality than whiz-bang technology). Does then the prospect of having an "Eco-maid" make better sense in terms of impact than so-called Green Consumerism? Does it make more sense to take a cyclo than drive a hybrid?

Anyway, I'm going to give my copy to some of my students from the Environmental Studies department, and see what they think of it. Maybe I can let you know about their reactions in a future post.

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