It was three days into my editorial internship at Bangkok Post, where I was free to write about anything I wished to, be it the city’s wild nightlife scene or its complicated LGBTQ laws. Despite all the creative freedom, my mind always turned back to the environment. In the position to write for Thailand’s largest English-language newspaper, I felt that I finally had the power to make not only a positive but also massive impact through my words.
So I set off to understand and tackle one of the city’s big environmental issues: the lack of public green space. After roughly 15 minutes on Google, I learned that Bangkok’s residents have only about 3.3 square meters of green space per person, compared to New York City’s 23.1 square meters. I also found that Thailand is the world’s sixth biggest contributor to ocean waste, which comes as no surprise considering how many plastic bags we seem to need for one banana fritter.
I knew there were bigger reasons for why it takes me an hour to get to a park (twice the physical size of New York City, Bangkok has just maybe five places you could call a park), and why more shopping malls are built and more trees are cut. So I dug deeper to learn about why the problem exists and why it persists — and the deeper I dug, the pit grew darker.
Having previously interned at Greenpeace, I knew the extent of our current environmental problems and that the idea of fixing them all at once seems impossible. I was once a hopeful young girl who’d walk to class and be choked by the thick exhaust fumes of the city’s public buses and think, “Wow, this incredibly sucks, but I can change it.” But I became a bitter teenager who embraced the mentality of “Why should I care? No one else does.”
As I sat in the canteen later that day, an older colleague joined me for lunch. He went on to ask me, “What do you want to do in the future? Do you want to change the world, or do you want to get rich?” I replied, “Change the world, of course. That’s why I’m here.” To which he replied, “Don’t. Make things easy for yourself.”
It’s hard to stay hopeful in such a hopeless place, where there’s black smog in the air and plastic trash in the river. It’s hard to believe you can create change when no one else does. It’s hard to fight for all that’s left when what you see is all that’s gone.
As the bad news from my research and the fluorescent lights in the office drained the life out of me, I tried to distract myself by flicking through my Instagram. And there he was on my feed, young Dutch Boyan Slat, and his goal to save the environment. Halfway across the world, like a knight in shining armor sent from the internet, this young man with a dream had brought mine back to life.
Though Slat’s invention didn’t work out as he had planned, it had worked out in ways it wasn’t meant to. It might not have entirely rid the waters of garbage, but it did free my mind of cynicism and defeatism. Simply by having the determination and taking the initiative, he inspired many ambitious others who just needed a little push and drive to become the change they wanted to see.
Perhaps it was after one of my environmental science field trips in high school — and maybe when my teacher told me I was his favorite — that I first became aware of my passion for writing about nature. I am now a Greenpeace volunteer and activist, just like he was. I never realized the impact he had on me, until one particular day in the backyard of a primary school outside of Bangkok, when it hit me just how much impact I had on others. In one hour of working with a bunch of kids, I was able to turn them around from screaming and running away at the sight of worms and convince them what insanely cute, fun, squiggly creatures they were seeing. By the end of that one hour, these youngsters were begging for more worms to touch and play with. And in that one hour teaching them the importance of fertile soil and the beauty of organic vegetables, it became clear that I have become the change I wanted to see. It became clear that I had created hope in the form of these little humans just as my teacher had done for me, and that, in turn, gave me hope.
Back at work, I managed to finish the article about Bangkok’s lack of green space. Instead of the despairing and tragic tale it initially started as, the story ended up as one of persistence, faith and aspiration. With just a spark of optimism from foreign faces who make change happen, I was able to recognize them around me and see from a fresh perspective. It allowed me to discover and write about hopeful people — like the Thai female landscape architect I interviewed, who, against all odds, designed Bangkok’s first park in 30 years to mitigate urban climate change — to inspire more hopeful people and become one myself.
Turning a few kids around to love and adore squiggly worms didn’t help me reduce global temperatures or prevent sea level rise overnight, but it was a change. I made them think and I made them love, and it was only possible because someone else had shown me how. Those kids, with their bright smiles and curious questions and delightful awe and hopeful squeals, will go on to tell their parents, then their friends, then their friends’ friends, about organic fertilizers and free-range chickens — and maybe one day change the world.
We have every reason to keep believing, and we have every reason to keep fighting. As long as the last drop of water remains, we have no reason to stand and watch our house burn.
Nanticha Ocharoenchai is a writer and Greenpeace activist from Thailand.