Further reflections from Thailand: Learning to live with uncertainty

In my last post I talked about transformational change and referred to my Agri-Nature Foundation friends as a living example of this. It sounds radical and some may think painful. It’s only radical if you don’t feel some attunement to the principles of Buddhist belief, or in fact the core principles of all religions. These principles are about care for our earth and all forms of life. And there is only pain if you struggle with uncertainty and change.

One of the main themes for my time in Thailand was uncertainty. I gave a talk, as provocateur, at a session on uncertainty at the adaptation forum. Prior to giving the talk Ajarn Yak and Khun Wipa shared with me a Thai Buddhist saying:

Certainty is Uncertainty

This whole question of uncertainty and responding to rapid change came up throughout the remainder of my time in Thailand. Sometimes it was the source of banter as I travelled with Ajarn Yak and Khun Wipa.

First stop in this post of my post-forum experiences in Thailand is my favourite hotel. There are many good things about this boutique hotel. Most of all the genuine commitment of the owners shines through from use of recycled materials in the bedrooms, the funky artwork, the organic breakfasts, and their rooftop garden. Otherwise ugly concrete buildings can be transformed into urban oases with the right mindset.

The rooftop garden at Phranakorn Nornlen hotel provides ingredients for their organic breakfasts
The rooftop garden at Phranakorn Nornlen hotel provides ingredients for their organic breakfasts

On Saturday 23 October I was collected from Phranakorn Nornlen and we travelled to the Agri-Nature Learning Centre at Maab Ueang, in Chonburi Province. There was a group of about 50 people there on the final day of a 5-day training course. I was asked to speak to them. Inevitably the topic was about our uncertain future with climate change. I talked for a while and then answered their questions. We stayed at Maab Ueang for the next two days, for the initial part of a 5-day workshop on dhamic health. Unfortunately all of the seminars were in Thai (I was the only non-Thai speaker there) and so I missed a lot of the detail. But for two days I experienced a cleansing diet and experienced some other aspects of their programme. I also had the opportunity to talk to participants, prompted by concerns I raised with Ajarn Yak about the plastic waste I noticed as we did rubbish collection duties. This led to me talking to people about the linkages between planetary health and human health, using plastic as an example. The specific examples I gave were the pollution of our oceans and the health effects of Bisphenol A, which is commonly found in drink bottles.

The dhamic health workshop was focused on personal health, but we had an opportunity to talk about connections between personal and planetary health
The dhamic health workshop was focused on personal health, but we had an opportunity to talk about connections between personal and planetary health

Transformational change starts within, with recognition that each of us is both the source of many of the problems we have, and the solution. So long as we treat the problems in the world as external to ourselves we will continue to view external incremental changes as the solution. In many cases these incremental changes simply add to the problems. When we begin to recognise that change starts within we’re on the path to transformation. What we tend to do as humans is use as many external props as possible to eliminate uncertainty in our lives and give us what we perceive as security. This is most evident through consumer behaviour. Simplifying our lives and learning to live with uncertainty are key steps in the process of internalising change and bringing about transformation.

Just when I was settling in to the health programme at Maab Ueang I was told that we were leaving. This happened within the space of an hour. I barely had time to pack my bag. We headed to a nearby town and a restaurant by the river. The cleansing diet came to a rapid end. As the evening progressed there were flashes of lightning in the sky. Despite forewarnings of impending rain we sat there until the thunder was overhead and the rain came pouring down. There was more thunder and lightning the next morning with a flooded street outside the hotel where we stayed.

Local flooding after an early morning thunderstorm, in a week when Thailand experienced serious flooding
Local flooding after an early morning thunderstorm, in a week when Thailand experienced serious flooding

I ought to mention that preceding my arrival in Thailand there had been heavy rains in northern Thailand. This resulted in flooding in 38 provinces with 104 deaths. Throughout my time in Thailand there was constant talk that Bangkok was under threat. Soon after my departure there was further flooding in southern Thailand.

On Tuesday 26 October we were met by Khun Duangdao, a former Agri-Nature Foundation trainee. She is developing the Dheva Resort on the Bang Pakong river, about 45km from Bangkok. This is going to be a new eco-resort with biogas, solar and wind energy, organic gardens and rice fields, a diverse forest, waste recycling. This is one example of the widening influence of Ajarn Yak’s work.

Ajarn Yak with Khun Duangdao (far right) and Khun Wipa at the site of Dheva resort
Ajarn Yak with Khun Duangdao (far right) and Khun Wipa at the site of Dheva resort

After a crazy trip into Bangkok on Tuesday afternoon, to a TV studio to talk about the flood situation, we finally ended up at a place called Ancient City.  More about this soon.  Next morning we were on the road again, at least a 3-hour trip to Chanthaburi Province to the Pong Raed Agri-Nature Learning Centre. The main facilitator here, and now a key member of the network, is Ajarn Teera. Ajarn Teera used to be a chemical farmer, but has completely changed. At the Pong Raed Learning Centre they have gained a lot of experience working with youth, including young trouble-makers. Because of their experience with youth they were hosting a 5-day training session that was about to begin, sponsored by AIS the largest telecommunications company in Thailand. We were there for Ajarn Yak to talk to the participants, and I was also invited to talk for a while.

New arrivals for a 5-day training course representing three schools from the Chao Phraya watershed
New arrivals for a 5-day training course representing three schools from the Chao Phraya watershed

Earlier this year AIS approached the Agri-Nature Foundation about sponsoring a project with schools. The result was that 50-60 schools from the Chao Phraya watershed submitted projects on how they would initiate action to improve the river. The Chao Phraya is the most significant river in Thailand, flowing through many historically significant cities including Bangkok and with a watershed that covers 35 percent of Thailand. From the project submissions 25 schools were invited to send four students and one teacher for a 5-day training session at the Chumphon Cabana Agri-Nature Learning Centre. Each school brought their projects, were taught about the principles and practice of the Sufficiency Economy, and subsequently refined their projects. This training was held in mid October, just before I arrived in Thailand. As a result three schools were selected for a more intensive 5-day programme at the Pong Raed Learning Centre. This time each school was represented by 50 people including students, teachers, school council members and community leaders. The goal for each is to further develop a project that they will take back and action within their communities. The Agri-Nature Foundation will follow through to make sure this is happening.

It was a late return to Ancient City where we were staying. My final day was spent resting at Ancient City and learning something about this amazing place. Ancient City was established by the grandfather of Khun Pan (Kantorn Tongtiw) the current owner. His vision was to preserve the history of Siam, the former Kingdom, for future generations and to develop a living educational resource. Using his own wealth he bought 500 rai (80 hectares) of land on the outskirts of Bangkok, very close to the Gulf of Siam. The land is in the shape of modern day Thailand. He began buying traditional buildings from around Thailand and relocating them to this site. In some cases he built replicas, including the showpiece Sanphet Prasat Palace. The original palace was destroyed by the Burmese invasion and destruction of Ayutthaya in the 18th century. Ancient City has 500 staff and has 500,000 visitors each year. Schools from throughout Thailand come there for school camps. Khun Pan is not simply carrying on his grandfather’s vision. He is building on it. He is yet another member of the Agri-Nature network and is currently developing nine learning stations around Ancient City to educate people about the Sufficiency Economy.

The Agri-Nature Learning Centre at Ancient City
The Agri-Nature Learning Centre at Ancient City
Gardening at Ancient City
Gardening at Ancient City

Getting back to the themes of transformational change and uncertainty, my second trip to Thailand this year has further enriched my understanding of the Sufficiency Economy. I know that I miss a lot with my lack of comprehension of Thai language, but I have still learned a lot. The Sufficiency Economy brings together old wisdom and contemporary knowledge. It encourages individual responsibility and action, and peaceful co-existence amongst humans and with our earth. In Thailand there are a growing number of people who want to be actively engaged in transformational change. Political, health and environmental crises are motivations for change and the Agri-Nature Foundation is providing practical solutions.

Ajarn Yak steering the boat at Ancient City. If the boat is representative of knowledge then Ajarn Yak certainly has a very good sense of how to steer things in the right direction in terms of putting knowledge into action
Ajarn Yak steering the boat at Ancient City. If the boat is representative of knowledge then Ajarn Yak certainly has a very good sense of how to steer things in the right direction in terms of putting knowledge into action

Back from Thailand: reflections on the need for transformational change

I’m back from Thailand and currently dealing with a chest infection. Travelling takes it toll, both on my health and on that of the planet. I live with these inconsistencies. From my arrival late on 19 October through to the morning of 23 October I was based in Bangkok, staying in one of my favourite hotels. By very good fortune it was 10 minutes walk from the United Nations Conference Centre, where the Asia Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum was held.

The forum was an interesting experience, particularly in terms of feedback from my Agri-Nature Foundation friends who were also in attendance. I’ll come to this in a while. The theme of this forum was ‘mainstreaming’ adaptation to climate change. The mainstreaming of adaptation into national policy frameworks, particularly in least developed countries, has gained significant momentum in the last few years. This momentum is a result of the significant, and increasing, amounts of funding for adaptation that are coming available. It is recognition that climate change is happening and there will be inevitable negative impacts on environments and people around the world. I see this increased attention to adaptation as a mixed blessing. On the one hand it reflects the need for positive action to address the effects of climate change, which if done properly could also provide benefits in terms of reduced emissions. But the speed at which things are happening, and the lack of genuine expertise, is a big concern. Funds are coming available almost faster than various agencies can keep up with. And suddenly there are a whole lot of ‘climate change experts’. The one big contradiction that I see is that a lot of people are talking about the need for action, and agreeing that they need to have more meetings to talk about action, but where is the action and who is doing it? And exactly what sort of action are we talking about? Are we talking about incremental changes to what we are currently doing? Or are we talking about transformational changes?

My posters on display in Bangkok - lessons from practical people who are involved in transformational change
My posters on display in Bangkok - lessons from practical people who are involved in transformational change

I view incremental changes as adjustments we make to partially offset the negative consequences, and potential vulnerabilities, of our on-going economic development focus. In many countries, including New Zealand, this includes continuing with activities such as high input agricultural systems (particularly our dairy industry) but doing things like improving irrigation efficiency or dealing with the consequences of nitrate pollution. We’re not questioning the future vulnerability and costs of sustaining such systems. Evidence from past civilizations gives us some clear lessons. In the words of Brian Fagan, author of ‘The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization’ (It’s also worth reading this Guardian review):

“In our efforts to cushion ourselves against smaller, more frequent climate stresses, we have consistently made ourselves more vulnerable to rarer but larger catastrophes. The whole course of civilization … may be seen as a process of trading up on the scale of vulnerability.”

Whether we see it or not, our present actions are accelerating us towards a collision course. The economic rationalists tell us that we have no alternatives. I guess this makes sense if you understand the causes of tunnel vision. I liken our addiction to fossil fuels and the growth economy to the effects of alcohol and some drugs on vision. We’re in a world of rapid change and we humans are increasingly in need of transformational change. My view is that we either act willingly now, or be forced into change at much greater cost sometime in the future.

Transformational change means we step outside of the square. We shed our strong dependence on fossil fuels and start opening our minds to the world of possibilities that lies beyond what can only be described as addictive, and ultimately destructive, behaviour. The sooner we make this change the better. Yes, it might involve some short-term pain, changes in lifestyle and consumer behaviour. Long-term, the sooner we act the better placed we will be to benefit from a genuinely harmonious and productive relationship with the earth.

It’s taken me a while, but this is where I come to the Agri-Nature Foundation in Thailand. Through the practical application of the Sufficiency Economy philosophy they are actively engaged in transformational change. My friends, Ajarn Yak and Khun Wipa, were very frustrated with the adaptation forum. All of this talk about the need for action, and they are acting. Mainstreaming adaptation is a redundant concept for them. Their work isn’t driven by a climate change funding agenda. It was originally driven by a challenge from farmers to show that the King of Thailand’s ideas on the Sufficiency Economy had some practical merit. Their funding has come from people freely offering financial support because of the results they are getting. The Sufficiency Economy is a response to the forces of globalisation and the many environmental and other problems now unfolding in the world. This includes climate change. Practical application of the Sufficiency Economy involves planting a diversity of tree species, protecting precious water resources, living within the limits of your local environment, providing for your basic needs and sharing surplus. It follows fundamental ecological concepts. The foundation is a sustainable and resilient ecology. Through a conscious design process we develop greater stability, and buffering capacity, through well-planned functional diversity. Within this we develop a healthy social environment and then a sustainable economy. I know various people talking about these concepts. I know very few examples of practical application. In this regard the work of the Agri-Nature Foundation needs wider recognition and I’m dedicated to supporting that as well as I can.