As we sat down at one of the tables the other day, amid the chatter and clatter and all the bustle around the steaming cauldrons of broth, my attention was momentarily caught by the TV prominently positioned nearby.
On the screen there was a man in late middle age with a somewhat familiar face looking sincerely into the camera and delivering a message in kindly tones. Like a benevolent uncle or a wise and trusted family friend, he was advising anyone watching that it would be in their best interest to purchase the product he represented.
I asked my wife, “Who is that fellow on the TV?”
She told me his name. “He is a very popular singer and movie star since a long time ago”.
So, he’s an actor and he’s clearly very good at his job. He has a long-established rapport with a large audience in Thailand. Presumably, everyone knows that he is being paid to deliver this message with such wonderfully simulated sincerity but, nevertheless, the ad is cleverly persuasive. Is it really in the viewer’s best interest to trust this man and to follow the advice he is giving? He probably doesn’t know or care very much. Obviously, the decision-makers who commissioned the ad believe that it’s in the corporation’s interest for people to believe the message or they wouldn’t have invested in its production and dissemination.
These days we are subjected to an overwhelming deluge of information of many kinds and it’s really very difficult to sort through all the misinformation and disinformation that we may be presented with, to find what’s really accurate and reliable. It’s not just commercial advertising that’s unreliable. News reports, political messages, and even the education system, all deliver “information” crafted by those who are able to profit by our belief and our active compliance. As a young child, I accepted everything I was told as “truth”.
“Eat your vegetables so you’ll grow up big and strong.” Okay, now that I possessed this information, I had a choice to make. Some of the vegetables were revolting to me. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be a puny weak adult. “Mom, how big will I be if I only eat the carrots but not the cabbage?”
It wasn’t long before I learned that sometimes people gave me information that turned out to be mistaken. All the kids believed that killing a daddy-long-legs would make it rain. Although I liked the harmless friendly “daddy-long-legs” spiders and I hated to kill one, the budding scientist in me needed to make the experiment. After the execution, I waited and watched the sky for the scientifically appropriate length of time (until I got hungry) but there was no sign of rain. Having adequately disproved the hypothesis, I went home for a snack carrying with me another bit of valuable knowledge gained.
Then, at some later point, I learned that people could deliberately lie to achieve something they wanted. I even tried it myself a few times.
“Mom, I feel sick. I don’t think I can go to school today.”
“Maybe we should take your temperature. I’ll get the thermometer.”
Oho! I knew what to do! But, alas, Moms know about thermometers and boys and stuff. The old light-bulb trick works pretty well but, as it turns out, 110 degrees is a bit too high to be credible.
Looking around the noodle shop at the students in their crisp white and black uniforms as they ate together in groups at the other tables, I could easily imagine what kind of information is being imparted to them. Probably, many of their parents and grandparents are lean sturdy sun-browned people who have worked hard in the fields, markets or on construction sites to give these kids a chance to enjoy an easier life. They believe that the old way of life on the land is not good enough, that young people will be better off spending their working lives in air-conditioned offices manipulating symbols on electronic devices and making lots of money.
These students believe what they’ve been told without question, I think, never suspecting that their parents may be mistaken or that the message has been crafted by those who seek to profit from their belief.
They are are mostly innocent, trusting kids, totally unaccustomed to critical thinking. I notice that, unlike the previous generation, they tend to be rather soft, pale, physically weak, and many are quite fat. They are following instructions, getting the best education they can to achieve a lucrative career in some kind of specialized professional field.
Their teachers don’t offer them any alternative to the standard message either. They pass along to students their own devout faith in the value of modernity and progress, economic and technological development, prosperity and material affluence. Thailand is producing another generation of leaders and experts who believe that the only answer to any problem is more: more advanced technology, more industry, more human intervention for control of the natural world, even if the problem was actually caused by all of these factors.
I long to teach these kids that the life of material affluence and technological progress is far from happy and trouble free. Very often the lives of wealthy people I’ve talked to in North America were riddled with problems and disappointments; stress and poor health, depression, addiction, marital infidelity and of course, many troubles with their kids.
If I could set up a university in Thailand, it would resemble a traditional village with small, mud-block buildings under the trees. There would be gardens and fruit trees, ducks and chickens and water buffalo around and fish in the ponds. Students would be taught the values and the skills appropriate for sustainable community living. High levels of education in many fields such as health-care, biology, philosophy etc. would be integrated with the ability to produce food, clothing, shelter and simple implements.
Can you envision a highly educated historian, say, wading in the mud behind his buffalo, preparing his field for planting? Our minds are deeply imprinted with the specialization/division-of-labor model of production with its accompanying necessity for trade. Whether trade creates an attitude of competition, trying to profit from one another’s toil and whether or not this is damaging to the cooperative spirit of genuine community is, I think, a question worthy of careful consideration.
The noodle soup was ample and delicious. I particularly liked the heap of bean sprouts and fresh basil that always comes with it and, of course, the tiny fierce Thai chili peppers. My bowl was nearly empty when I saw the news coming on TV. Although I don’t understand much of the Thai language yet, I could hear the word “namtuam”, meaning “flood” used repeatedly. Then a reporter appeared on the screen, standing with a great deal of water behind her, speaking urgently with a concerned look on her face. Bangkok, a city of some 9 million people, built only 2 meters above sea-level on a broad alluvial plain, is being flooded by the heaviest monsoon runoff in living memory.
A friend of ours, after watching the rising waters surround her house, has had to abandon it, eventually escaping with her kids by boat. Then they were all crowded, with a lot of other refugees, into the back of a military truck to be carried to dry ground. They’re okay now, but thousands of others are trapped in their houses, running low on food and drinking-water. Sanitation, of course, is an ever growing problem.
It looks as though this year’s unprecedented rainfall is a strong indication that climate change is upon us. The resulting floods have been worse than need-be because water was held back in reservoirs and then, out of necessity, released at the wrong time. Raised highways and urban roads delayed the water in its movement to the sea. Many old canals have been filled in over the recent decades of Bangkok’s growth, again impeding drainage. The resulting pile-up of water is breaking through hastily erected sandbag barriers and working its way into the heart of the city right now, as I write.
The immense deluge of water that is overwhelming Bangkok is, in a very real sense, “information”. I see it as a message from the earth to humankind. It is telling us very forcefully that all our bungling attempts to meddle with and control the ways of nature are resulting in catastrophe for us and for the planet.
I suppose we can only hope that eventually, this message will be understood and taken to heart.
“A ne’er-do-well unemployed dishwasher”, that’s how my former father-in-law used to describe me. In his view, I never made much progress beyond that and his assessment was pretty accurate, I suppose. After 63 years of life on this earth I still don’t have much to show for it except good health, happiness, love, freedom and peace of mind … unimportant things of that nature.
Never a specialist (unless, perhaps, in versatility), I have managed to accumulate a wide range of experience in the following fields: hitch-hiking, hopping freights, sleeping rough, wilderness homesteading, organic gardening, bee-keeping, hand-milking, natural home birth, surveying, designing and building homes, therapeutic parenting and leadership for troubled youth, guitar playing, photography, mountain hiking, canoeing, bicycling, helping disabled people and taking care of my mother in the last year of her life.
Currently, I dabble in tropical permaculture and teach conversational English in Thailand.
All in all, I’ve been a very fortunate ne’er-do-well, I’d say..