So, I’m finishing up my 2 years as a community environmental conservation extentionist in Panama. But, if I ever felt I could teach these people something about the environment, I’m a fool. Yeah, they don’t really understand how global warming works, but they’ve noticed temperatures and water patterns change drastically over the last few years. They might not understand complex forest ecology and ecosystem services, but they’ve seen how bad drought can be in deforested areas. Since they actually live close to wildlife, they notice wildlife populations dropping. And they might not be granola, organic Whole Foods types, but they’ve seen family members die from cancer from agrochemicals.
If anything, I’ve learned from them. I’ve learned how to get everywhere I want by walking or taking a bus. I’ve learned what its like to not throw things away, to truly fix or reuse anything you have, so you can still use the same TV for 25 years, and store all your food in plastic ice cream containers. And I’ve learned what it’s really like to eat local. I think most things in the typical meal, from the rice to beans to veggies to meat to spices, to coffee to fruit juices, can all be found in my town or at least in my province. I bought a box of “comfort food” Kraft Mac and Cheese, while my neighbor eats her own free range chicken, her own beans, and drinks juice from her own orange trees and sugar cane, and I call myself the environmentalist? Afterwards, she will compost her organic waste. I’ve had to learn how to live in tune with the environment. I intentionally don’t buy plastic bottles. I guard rain water so I won’t waste too much from the town aqueduct. My electricity bill is like $3 because I don’t have a washer, dryer, air conditioning, or washing machine. When it gets hot, you just open the doors for some breeze, and dry your clothes in the sun. Yes, there are some problems people see down here you don’t get in the U.S., like trash in the streets and non-existant emissions standards for cars. But there’s also no dead-zone the size of New Jersey in any of their gulfs, there’s no rivers that run dry before reaching the ocean because of over-irrigation, and there aren’t coal powered power plants.
I just realized I can’t really be a true environmentalist when I go back. I won’t be able to eat local, like I do here. I won’t be able to air dry my clothes (apparently home owner’s associations have nasty rules against that). I won’t have an efficient bus or public transport system to use, and thus will be forced to own and drive a car. I’m a fool if I ever thought I was here to teach these people something. And I can understand why the global south rises up angry everytime the U.S. tries to act like a global environmental leader.