Monday, 20 April 2009

Everyone is talking, No one is listening

The view from the stage. 19th April 2009, Komplex Penyayang, George Town Penang. The event : "To Ban or Not to Ban Plastic Bags". About 150 or so members of the "public" showed up. Not bad for a sunday morning crowd.

At the end of the so-called dialogue, I said that "there's obviously a lot of posturing. We need to talk to each other. Right now, I don't see that we are talking to each other". My student sent me an SMS saying that it was quite a "nasty forum". The plastic manufacturers gave an hour-long presentation, rebutting /refutting every single thing said about why plastic bags are bad. Then the greenies had their say (I was one of them). And then the plastic manufacturers immediately "seized the stage" to rebut a few new issues brought up by the greenies, especially in relation to health concerns and those related to plastics which are not plastic bags. The poor young MC could not control the floor. Some people got angry because the plastic manufacturers were seen to be abrasive and stealing the floor. All the speakers were asked to go up to the stage for the forum to begin. But even on stage, the plastic manufacturers wouldn't let go and continued to press their point of view. The moderator had mysteriously disappeared part way through all the presentations. The young team from the CM's office were stumped and had to bring in reinforcements by getting the State Exco member present to preside - in fact, to tell the manufacturers to stop.

And when the floor was open, the greenies repeated their stance. The reps from the manufacturers and recyclers were vocal and loud (even shoutingly loud), and a little threatening and intimidating. The plastic industry in Malaysia is worth RM1.8 billion. Much is at stake. There were some level-headedness by one or two speakers from the floor. A Malaysia Second Home participant made an interesting remark "if you are building a chicken coop, why bring along the foxes?"

When the organisers started talking to me about this event, I already had some reservations. For instance, they wanted a debate format. I said "No". They also wanted the audience to raise their hands at the end of the event to vote whether the State Government should ban plastic bags. I said it was not a good idea. They thought I was afraid that the plastic manufacturers would be able to sway the audience to vote against the ban. I said the plastic manufacturers were the least of my worries. I said that I was more concerned that the State Government would fall flat on its face because it would put the public in a corner. "We got to show the public some respect. Give them choices." In particular, would people voluntarily stop or reduce use of plastic bags? How many are already doing it? And the plastic manufacturers would probably denounce it as manipulation if the vote was in favour of a ban. The organisers followed my advice. And then came the draft resolution. I didn't think much of it but I kept my mouth shut. The plastic manufacturers suggested a revision to emphasise 3R - they say plastic bags have been made a punching bag - which I kinda agree.

Which is why I did want to talk about "to ban or not to ban plastic bags". I talked about the need to be greener. I even drew a concept map and put it on this blog. I talked about the need to look at this from the point of view of a sustainable lifestyle. I even started my presentation with "left brain, right brain" thinking. That we need to approach this from the various mindsets. The greenies are set in their thinking. The plastic guys are even more set in their thinking. The politicians and government guys - sorry, but they don't seems to understand what needs to be done. I was distressed on stage when the EXCO member berated the Federal Government (actually the Education Ministry) for instructing the schools not to cooperate with the State Government (even though I think the Ministry is making a mistake). 200 letters were sent out by the CM's office inviting schools in Penang to participate. Zero response. 90 phones calls were made (only 5 said they will think about it). In the end not a single school children were there. And I am actually happy about that because they would probably have been totally confused by the posturing. And the angry and loud outburst by the EXCO. I was ashamed. And then a brave young lady stood up to say that her headmistress sent here because the headmistress was very concerned for the environment. She did not give her name or position, but she was a teacher, not a student. Bravo to her for politely telling the EXCO off (well, to me, she was telling him off). There must be other ways to reach school children. We are using only the left side of brain.

So, everyone is talking. No one is willing to listen - except for one or two. Of course everyone is entitled to express their views. But if everybody merely hold their ground, we won't get anywhere.

I did meet some interesting people. One was graduate in polymer from USM now working with the national petroleum company. They are concerned because what would they do with all their petroleum by-products (resins) if the demand for plastic bags dropped. I told the audience that futurists are telling us we should conserve our carbon for better use. For instance, carbon is seen as a replacement for silicon because carbon is super-efficient. In fact, the computer in humans (the brain, the brain), is made up of carbon. People came from as far as Seremban and Johor Baru (and I didn't like the way the Chair said that this is Penang, what has JB got to do with it? - something like that).

Was it a waste of my morning? I look at it as a journey. I now know at least what's not going to work. Some one needs to step forward to bring the various constituent groups together. Constituent groups, not stakeholders. I am learning the new-fangled language of being people-centred. Maybe this might be a good project to take for USM's People-Centred Sustainable Development.
Above : The Chief Minister of Penang was "ambushed" to sign the Green Pledge and of course he did. Now we will watch.
Below : about 30 USM Student Environmental Activists tried to get participants to sign the green pledge. In return, the signatories get a reusable cloth bag. Not very sure how they fared.

I told the audience at the beginning of my talk that the event was not so green - shrink wraps for the food and water in plastic bottles. One participant, probably from the plastic manufacturer stood up later to comment, saying what will happen to the people producing the bottled water if we all don't drink from those bottles. What about people who don't have access to clean water? I guess we still need to work on this idea of sustainable lifestyle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am sure we the greenies and the concerned members of the public were ambushed.However I am also sure that none of us fell or stumbled.
If the plastic manufacturers are able to come up with a fool proof scheme to buy back all used plastic bags ans recycle them only then can they talk and we might even help in the effort. Until then our theme is still 'Ban plastic bags at the check out counter'