My partner Andrea and I just returned from two months of traveling around Southeast Asia: Cambodia and Thailand, but mostly in Vietnam. For many of you who are older than 50, the simple word Vietnam conjures up images of body bags, carpet bombing and napalm on the nightly news with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.
Though in Vietnam it’s still called the American war, the Vietnamese have anything but animosity toward Americans.
Everywhere Andrea and I went, from Hanoi in the north to Sapa in the terraced hills, Halong Bay on the north coast to the beaches of Hoian and Mui Ne to Saigon and the Mekong Delta, we were greeted warmly and welcomed as family.
The purpose of our trip was to see a part of the world that neither of us had before. Anyone who’s been to Southeast Asia knows that in many ways it’s like another planet. The people, the culture, the food, the aromas and stenches and the lifestyles are so different from those we’re used to in the United States.
We arrived in Hanoi at night and, upon waking late and having a quick breakfast, we went out onto the street to see where we were. I’ve been to many countries and dozens of cities, but I’ve never seen anything like what I saw that morning on the streets of Hanoi.
There were thousands of motor scooters of every variety clogging every street, wherever I turned, and they were all blowing and tooting their horns — as were the cars, trucks and buses that the scooters were dodging. The word cacophony comes to mind. I’ve never seen or heard such apparent chaos.
Hanoi has a population of about 12 million people, and it has 6 million gas-powered scooters. The streets are so clogged with scooters — horns beeping, blinkers flashing, all swerving in and around each other at intersections — that it’s hard to visualize unless you’ve seen it in person. For the first couple of days, I just watched the traffic, mesmerized. My jaw would have dropped, except that I wanted to keep my mouth closed against the dust and pollution.
When the Vietnamese people ride their gas-powered scooters through the chaotic, insane intersections in the city, their faces exhibit a calm one would expect from a Buddha during meditation. Everyone had the same peaceful expression on their faces, despite the density and intensity of the traffic or how many family members were riding on the scooter with them.
One time, in Ho Chi Minh City, we were eating dinner at a nice restaurant — not out on the street — and a scooter rode right past our table, and nobody seemed at all surprised or bothered. And scooter drivers often ride down the wrong side of the street as they near their turn, and again, nobody becomes upset or admonishes the errant rider in any way. Everyone seemed to allow all of the other riders and drivers to do what they needed to do to get where they were going.
And that’s how the traffic functioned so well: Everyone cooperated with everyone else, as though they were all on the same team.
From what I saw, few riders wore helmets or glasses while riding their motorcycles — which is a must in the States — but it didn’t really matter very much because there were no bugs. (I have to wear glasses when I ride my motorcycle to protect my eyes from insects.)
There were no bugs and no birds — or few, anyway. I noticed it right away, the first day we arrived: no birds in the city. I saw only one small flock of pigeons around a church, but that’s about the only place I saw any birds — even though I saw rice scattered on the ground, which, in any other city, would attract many.
Even on the coast, at the beach, there were no seagulls or terns or any sea birds. Could it be all of the poison that we sprayed over the county in the 1960s and 1970s?
For the last two weeks of our trip, we volunteered with a non-profit group in Ho Chi Minh City that was focused on raising awareness in the Vietnamese people about both climate change and its causes as well as the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn.
This group of dedicated young professionals was so inspiring to us in that, despite the daunting challenges facing our planet and the lack of cooperation of the government — much as in the United States — they persevered in their efforts to save the planet.
So it was in Asia, in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, that I realized that we, as a global community, are not going to stop burning fossil fuels in time to prevent climate change.
From jet liners to scooters, taxis and trains to tour buses, boats and ships, the planet is crawling with petroleum-guzzling monsters — to say nothing of the coal-fired power plants ubiquitous not just in Asia, but all over the Earth.
We all know that it is the production of carbon dioxide, as well as other greenhouse gases, that is driving climate change. So there are only two ways that we can prevent a catastrophic alteration of our atmosphere: Stop producing CO2 or eat up the CO2 that we are producing.
Since its clear that we are not going to reduce our production of carbon dioxide to levels that will slow, stop and reverse the greenhouse effect, our only other option for saving our planet is to somehow reduce the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere.
The only way that this process is done naturally is by plants, through photosynthesis. All plants “breathe” in CO2 and breathe out oxygen. And as we humans have been producing more and more carbon dioxide, we’ve also been cutting down the lungs of the Earth. The rain forests around the globe have been decimated, as have many other forests and formally wooded lands. The trees that we’ve cut down used to eat up carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen; now that they’re gone, they don’t.
We need to plant trees. Billions of trees. Quickly. After traveling around southeast Asia and seeing the numbers of gas-burning vehicles — and then realizing that the same activities are happening all over the world simultaneously — I understand that reducing our production of CO2 is not going to happen. So I believe that we need to focus on the only other option.
Let’s plant trees. Let’s demand of our government and the governments of other countries around the world that they — and we — start planting trees and that we won’t stop planting until the level of greenhouse gases around the planet begins to drop. Only then will we know that we’ve won the battle for our lives, for the lives of every living being on the Earth, a battle that, if we don’t fight and win, will alter the Earth’s atmosphere to the point that the life that lives here now will no longer be able to survive.
— Scott Durkee is a freelance factotum, musician and artist and traveler who has lived on the island for 30 years. Scott and Andrea have been WWOOF (Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms) hosts since 2011. They have hosted 70 interns from around the world who come to Vashon to work in their sustainable garden and home.