Is Environmental Awareness a ‘Rich People's’ Thing?

Not really thinking it over, I agreed to write an article about environmental changes that affect our lives. Now, sitting on my couch in the middle of one of the most environmentally conscious and responsible countries in Europe, the thought comes to my mind, what a lucky life I have, to be able to breath fresh air, drink tap water and even water from the river. I’m also able to spend weekends in the countryside and cook vegetables grown in my own garden, just a 30-min drive from the city center. Mom, Dad, I forever thank you.

Many of the people living in the cities and urban areas in Vietnam, my country of origin, don’t have these amenities. To those of you who haven’t visited Vietnam yourselves, local people buy bottled water, boil it and then drink it. They use surgical masks when leaving their homes (well, not to mention that they ride motorcycles even for short distances), and deal with pesticides in vegetables sold in local markets, as the government lacks the capacity to manage and control pesticide usage.

For those of you who have already visited Vietnam and its neighboring countries, there is no need to remind you of the helpless feeling when encountering the impacts of missing system solutions for basic environmental awareness and responsibility: sewage, waste separation, single-use plastics, water pollution as a sign of rapid economic growth without adopting sufficient environmental measures, etc. Being a tourist in my own country, it sometimes reminds me of a Potemkin Village. A foreign visitor sees and raves over an Asian tiger, a country that can finally boast the fruits of the ‘doi moi’ economic reforms that began to attract foreign investments thirty years ago.

Losing Roots?

The main theme of my blog describes the life of the Vietnamese diaspora in the Czech Republic. I usually write about the differences between the Czech and Vietnamese mentality (if such a phenomenon even exists). Moreover, it’s quite fun to observe where the second generation of Vietnamese people living in the Czech Republic is heading.

In Western countries, owning less, circulating, and sharing is a privilege rather than a sign of being poor. This is the opposite to how a ‘wealthy lifestyle’ is portrayed and perceived in South-east Asia.

There is clearly one thing that differentiates our generation from our parents’—an integrated sense of responsibility, sustainability and conscious living. For some of the older generation, this is a sign that the millennials and Gen Z’ers are losing their cultural roots and with it, the ambition to maximise financial gains at all costs. Owning less and not chasing profits (e.g. taking holidays, travelling, not spending the days in shops) is unfathomable.

To give it a bit of context, I come from a country where responsible and environment-friendly behaviour hasn’t gained much public attention yet. Thus, owning more and more goods, or choosing plastic bags to carry takeaway food is pretty much a common thing. This was a habit acquired in developing countries from the 1990s, exploiting its natural resources in order to gain economic independence. In my community growing up, I only saw my parents working hard to secure a comfortable life for our family here and financially supporting the rest of the family in Vietnam.

The mindset of being environmentally responsible goes far beyond our day-to-day struggles of finding our own ‘place in the sun’, as we like to say in Czech. Living in a western country affords us one of life’s biggest privileges—freedom of choice. Little by little, we can make responsible and conscious decisions, including going plant-based, reducing our ecological footprints, etc., without losing our comfortable lifestyles. Paradoxically (or how one can see from social media and Greta’s followers), in Western countries, owning less, circulating, and sharing is a privilege rather than a sign of being poor. This is the opposite to how a ‘wealthy lifestyle’ is portrayed and perceived in South-east Asia.

Put your Invisible Cloak on!

It is a notorious economy-versus-ecology dilemma that affects developing countries. As a non-frequent tourist in my home country, I can only see bits and pieces of developing environmental movements and activism, which, well… the government isn’t really impressed with. There is no dispute, however, that in order to protect the environment in Vietnam (or elsewhere in the world), there is a need to take systematic measures in affected areas and they must be driven by the local government.

Looking at this topic from a different perspective, being environmentally conscious means caring for others. And this should correspond quite well with Asian collectivistic values and approaches, right?

At the same time, let’s not overlook the issue of non-regulated tourism that can disrupt the local lifestyle and ecosystems by creating an intermittent demand. So, how can we contribute, or rather blend in, as you will find out later. Everybody sitting on a couch in the middle of Europe and planning to go to Asia, Africa or any other country, can start reducing their ecological footprint by taking small, conscious steps.

Recently, I came across a quite niche trend (yet very natural) of ‘invisible tourism’, which might help prevent one from intervening in the local lifestyle and flow. It takes a few steps, such as avoiding the main tourist attractions, skipping a hunting experience just for the sake of hunting, taking back everything you arrive with, not using single-plastics, etc.

Every little step towards ethical and sustainable travel and living counts. Perhaps, we should start asking ourselves how to change our lives in order to stop affecting the environment in negative ways. In order to preserve its natural resources, Vietnamese people need to shift from the growth and wealth-driven mindset towards a more responsible and sustainable lifestyle.

But, let’s give it one more generation since ecology is finally being taken seriously by young people who spend their time browsing social media. And, there is no better place for ecology to become a youngsters’ viral trend than in Asia. Looking at this topic from a different perspective, being environmentally conscious means caring for others. And this should correspond quite well with Asian collectivistic values and approaches, right?

Lastly, since we have been given the opportunity to grow up with and gain environmental awareness, maybe this is the right time for us, the second generation, to go back to our home countries and contribute something we have learned here in order to preserve a piece of the world, where our parents came from and maybe our children will return to.

We invite alumni of the Aspen Young Leaders Program to present their projects, thoughts and inspiration in Aspen Review.

Do Thu Trang

is a Czech-Vietnamese blogger. Growing up in the Czech-German borderlands, she then studied Czech-German Studies in Prague and Regensburg and also graduated with a degree in Marketing Communications and PR from Charles University. Her career began in marketing agencies, later gaining experience working in IT companies such as IBM Czech Republic. She has been part of the TEDxPrague organization and currently works as Communications Manager in a proptech startup. She has been writing her blog about the Vietnamese diaspora in the Czech Republic and was nominated for Magnesia Litera in the category Blog of the Year. Trang received an award for journalists under 33 years of age and was listed on Forbes Czech 30under30. She also co-wrote and hosted an online show entitled “Foreigners in the Czech Republic”. She received the Aspen Central Europe Leadership Award last year.

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