To be a humanitarian is to be an environmentalist

Siem Reap is a “good work city.” This place is overflowing with NGOs eager to lend guiding hands to a community in the process of being rebuilt after an unbelievably devastating period of history. The Khmer culture was nearly erased as a result of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge- between one and three million were murdered in attempt to eliminate an entire social order and turn Cambodia into a “working class” nation. More than three decades have passed and the effects of the Rouge are still lingering within large populations of uneducated citizens.

Nevertheless, I have never felt more empowered by the sheer number of people here, both Khmer and expats, who are dedicated to social change. The causes that have stood out to me among the many have been education and environmentalism. And the two are not mutually exclusive. The students at TGC regularly partake in events held by local environmental organizations here in SR. They get it- they understand the importance of sustaining our planet’s precious resources, and why taking action is so necessary.

The sustainability initiatives in this community are noteworthy. The campaign, “Plastic Free July” just ended in Cambodia, and I was lucky enough to attend the closing event, where one speaker stood out. She looked just shy of twenty years old and was at the event representing a yoga studio that participated in the plastic free challenge. She got up on stage unprepared, and spoke with such poise about a cause so clearly dear to her. She spoke of the direct effects of climate change that she has experienced in her village: droughts, erosion, and water pollution. She spoke about her own efforts to limit her environmental footprint. But then she went further to talk about the people who laughed at her, who questioned her, who didn’t understand. The elders in her village, the sellers in the markets, her own friends didn’t understand why she cared or why she was so committed to the cause. She shared about her failures trying to persuade her opposition otherwise. Her resolution: “If you believe in something, just do it. Others will see, and they will follow.” I don’t think she understood the power of her words at that moment. We all have something to learn from this girl.

In an earlier post I wrote about living simply (I told you these posts would jump around…) Well, two weeks have come and gone and I’ve produced just about one shopping bag full of garbage. Leaving a small environmental footprint is almost inherent in the culture and lifestyle of Cambodia, and most developing nations for that matter. Even so, these places are facing the absolute worst effects of our western actions. Funny how that happens… those who contribute the least face the harshest consequences. So here is my wish for those of you reading from home: next time you shrug off climate change or environmentalism as an abstract phenomenon way out in the distance, take a moment to stop and think about someone else, far away, who may not have the luxury to “shrug it off.” You don’t have to be an environmentalist, you just have to care.

Some of my students had the eye-opening opportunity to go to a US Embassy sponsored event that showed the film A Plastic Ocean. If you would like to learn more about the consequences of a disposable lifestyle, check it out at: https://www.plasticoceans.org.

 

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