Indonesia Expat

Trash Talk

“Ours is a culture and a time as immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures.” – Ray Bradbury

One of the main criticisms levelled at our work hard, shop hard, rinse, repeat, and die form of consumer capitalism are the so-called ‘externalities’ that the system produces, and largely ignores. For example, if I sell you a second-hand car, then everything is hunky-dory when viewed in purely financial terms. I’ve made a few rupiah to spend on Pilsner and prophylactics, while you’ve got yourself a nice run-around to take hubby to his feng shui classes.

However, beyond our little deal lie the so-called externalities. There’s the extra pollution added to the atmosphere, the spent gasoline (up to 50 percent of which is simply wasted out of hand sitting in Jakarta’s traffic jams, according to official statistics), not to mention the health costs of the driver’s blood pressure going through the roof during the psychological purgatory of the average Jakartan jam. Basically, our economic system still barely acknowledges the surely self-evident fact that the Earth is neither an infinite resource nor an infinitely large rubbish bin. (And by the way, if anyone’s interested, then serious offers only please for the car, no tyre kickers.)

Now if one looks at the Indonesian capital in the context of these issues, then one could surely be forgiven for imagining that folk here are in competition with each other to produce as many ‘externalities’ over and above the purely financial value of their transactions as is humanly possible.

Whether it’s clogging waterways with trash, wrapping shopping deep within an impenetrable cocoon of plastic bags, burning said bags at the roadside morning, noon and night, thus turning the city into a vast carcinogenic shisha pipe, tossing still smouldering cigarette butts into parched, tinder-dry forests (what could go wrong?), endangering species by the ark load, driving buses so old that they would give a Volkswagen emissions tester nightmares, all the way up to producing a blanket of haze so thick that even NASA’s satellites have drawn a blank.

If there’s one national stereotype here that I have no qualms at all about reinforcing, it’s this general environmental ignorance, and it gives me no great pleasure to say it, as obviously I have to breathe the same air too.

I suggest introducing new green lessons into the national education curriculum and challenging the prevailing laissez-faire, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to waste and the environment. Even knocking just an hour off the general flag-saluting and genuflecting to God indoctrination sessions once a week in order to accommodate said classes would be a start. Alas, however, green politics are often characterised as watermelon politics by authoritarian types, of which there are many here. And by watermelon, I mean green on the outside and red on the inside, and the red flag ain’t gonna fly very high in this country.

My travels around Indonesia, though, have blessed me with an abundance of natural riches, punctuated by infuriating mounds of rubbish. Let’s have a quick meander through the archipelago. Hikes around well-known peaks such as Gunung Gede, Lawu and the like have shown me gorgeous mountains which are generally clean as a whistle, to the point where you can even refill water bottles from the fresh stream that flows atop Gede (something that I certainly wouldn’t recommend doing further downstream).

Mind you, the small areas of trampled trash around where campers set their tents up are obviously highly vexing. Outside of Java, however, I have enjoyed cycle tours around sparsely populated areas in North Sulawesi, Sumba, Sumbawa, Aceh and the like and have revelled in the endless ribbons of clean roads and virgin sands.

Closer to home, Pulau Seribu (The Thousand Islands) can also be surprisingly pleasant, however I’ve found that one increasingly has to sail ever further down the chain and away from the capital in order to enjoy a nice swim unencumbered by a repulsive flotsam of noodle and detergent packets, as well as the terminal moraines of trash that uglify the beaches. Indeed, a study of the area turned up 34,000 pieces of litter in 11 categories on 23 of the islands. The most common items were polystyrene blocks, plastic bags (inevitably) and, for some reason, discarded footwear.

There’s undoubtedly a significant psychological component to the litter problem.

Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion conducted an interesting series of experiments. He would place flyers under the windscreen wipers of random cars in car parks and then wait, spying on the returning motorists in order to see if they tossed the flyers onto the ground.

The results revealed that environmental cues were a strong determining factor here. If the environment was already full of litter, then they littered. If there was no litter, then they were significantly less likely to litter. Interestingly, if there was one single piece of litter on the ground, then people were the least likely to litter, as the lone wrapper drew attention to the problem.

So, if this study is to be believed, then we have to first clean the place up before attitudes can change. Of course, for maximum effect, we’d have to leave a single piece of litter, although I guess that that could be Jakarta itself, which in terms of infrastructure, urban planning and general liveability resembles nothing so much as a giant discarded Indomie packet liberally smeared with engine oil and cat faeces.

Ultimately though, perhaps the person who best articulated the problem that urban Indonesia faces was the late, great Oscar Wilde. Once, during his famous tour of the US, Wilde was asked why he thought America, recently torn asunder by civil war, was such a violent society. His reply was simple: “I believe it’s because your wallpaper is so ugly.” Now at first glance this may seem like one of Oscar’s more flippant aphorisms, however perhaps there’s a more serious message here for those who, like Oscar, believe that an appreciation of beauty as refracted through life, culture and nature, is one of our noblest callings.

If you stroll along a virgin stretch of Indonesian coast, then you will see nothing but natural beauty. If, however, you live in an ugly, manmade environment full of plastic rubbish, clouds of hydrocarbon smog and monolithic expanses of grimy concrete, then you may well end up thinking ugly thoughts about yourself and indeed about the whole human race.

And so it is that you end up crapping in your own nest. And, so far as the capital of this fair country is concerned, rarely was a nest more crapped in.

Such an aesthetic view of life, as exemplified by Oscar, forces us to consider the world beyond the dyed-in-the-wool dogmas of parliamentary politics, nationalism and religion. And indeed Jakarta, which can seem so vibrant at times (and not just after 10pm when one has a cold beer in one’s hand), can, at others, induce an almost insurmountable sense of defeatism. Chin up, chaps, there’s still beauty out there.

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