Thailand: Where Environmentalism, Sort of, Rules


All the colors of the traffic rainbow

Image by Fabio Achilli/<a href="">Flickr</a>

As an economist, I travel with a lot of intellectual baggage. It's tough, wherever I am,  not to look around and wonder if people are behaving in an economically rational way.

Recently, I spent a month in Thailand. While there, I was struck by how ordinary Thais simultaneously embraced and ignored environmentalism.

On the one hand, few Thais recycle, no one bikes, plastic bags are everywhere and Bangkok is afflicted by gridlock and pollution. So you might say that, in general, Thais behave more like citizens of a rapidly emerging economy than the typical Brooklyn environmentalist.

Why, then, does virtually every home use efficient compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). Americans and Europeans needed a ban on incandescent bulbs to make the switch. Not so the Thais, where you can still buy cheaper, more inefficient incandescent bulbs at the corner store.

Was it the influence of a higher authority? Thais famously revere their 85-year-old King, the world’s longest-reigning head of state, who happens to be an environmentalist.

The answer is, mostly,  no.

The King’s example may have played some role, but economic incentives,  the economist in me is happy to report, played a much bigger one. Faced with the prospect of either building a new power plant or encouraging Thais to conserve electricity, the state-owned utility opted for the latter. CFLs received heavy subsidies, aided by a public information campaign.

So it turns out that Thais aren’t different from anyone else in the world. Give them the right incentives to use cleaner bulbs, and they’ll do it.

But give them incentives to buy cars instead of taking mass transit, and they’ll do that, too. The central government offers first-time car buyers generous tax incentives, so, yes, more Thais are buying cars. And not just thanks to tax incentives. In Bangkok, buses are packed and slow, and the elevated rail system, which is already operating at full capacity, is limited in its reach and is anyway a luxury many can’t afford. The truth is, you can’t get where you want to go without a car.

The result of these multiple incentives is predictable: a city seized by gridlock and serious air pollution –but whose inhabitants light their homes in the most environmentally friendly way.

The moral of this story is that it’s fine to appeal to the better nature of people – as the Thai King does to his people. But in the end, Thais, like everyone else, need the right economic incentives to reduce their carbon footprint.

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Gernot Wagner

Gernot Wagner

Focuses on the economics of clean air.

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Very interesting and it would be great to read something a little bit more in depth. There's one point of information that I find conflicting to what I've seen growing up in Bangkok. Everybody (OK most people I knew) recycled. It might not be a formal program where city workers come and collect the recycle bins but they did sell their bottles, old newspaper, and other used materials.

Recycling is another good example of economic incentives at work. You can drop off your recycled paper at certain collection centers in exchange for a few Baht. Turns out much of the trash in Bangkok doesn't get recycled -- I'd be curious to hear where you grew up for most of your friends and neighbors to recycle -- but done properly, such a system could set the right incentives for "efficient" recycling rates.

The larger point is once again that it comes down to economics. Make using CFLs cheap in every sense of the word -- most directly by subsidizing them -- and people use them. Pay per kilogram of recycled paper, and people recycle.

I agreed with your point. I grew up in the Payathai region next to the elephant-head bridge (if it's still there). The recycling back then was simply an old Chinese-Thai person going door-to-door pulling a rickshaw and collecting old newspapers, bottles, old tools, etc in exchange for some small amount of money. He would then take what he bought to a collection center, which I believe privately owned, not a government program. As far as I know, everybody back then was doing this. This was a common practice. Most Thais were not rich so we rarely wasted anything.

I spent three weeks in Thailand. Mostly in Bangkok. To me the city was relatively clean. I noticed that when I threw out a plastic bottle in the trash. There was someone along shortly to pull it out. Maybe not an official recycling program but and economical one. Still having the same result.

I just came back from nearly 3 weeks in Thailand. I remember an article about a woman revisiting Thailand after several decades, lamenting the plastic garbage packaging for the street food that replaced banana leafs and other compostable/biodegradable service. Although I don't agree with the polluting bulb hype, nor the recycling vs. reusing issue, I think this article calls attention to the beautiful spirit of the Thai people and their love of nature. I also agree we must not incentivize pollution.

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