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Day 57 – Old v. New. . .New Wins (Cambodia Dive 2)

April 29, 2010

Dateline: Koh Tang off the coast near Sihanoukville, Cambodia – Thursday, April 29, 2010

On our first dive I discovered a source of the damage to Koh Tang’s reef. Dynamite fishing.

Explosions underwater sound different than on land. Sound travels much better through liquid than through thinner air. The explosion makes a “doing” sound followed by a concussive blow. The French guide Fab, David, and I were swimming along a reef when we heard it. It didn’t echo. It sounded like it was all around us, then it was gone.

Fab immediately turned around and asked if we’re okay. We signaled that we were, then continued out swim.

When we hit the surface, Fab said the explosion was probably 1 km away. We looked around and but couldn’t see a fishing boat. We heard it, though.

Dynamite and cyanide fishing are a symptom of a larger problem. In much of the world, technology has developer faster than the culture that surrounds it. Dynamite and cyanide are powerful substances that, if misused, can have incredibly damaging effects. Here, people trying to making a living off the sea have found an easy, efficient way to catch fish. They drop a stick into the water and when it detonates the fish come to them. They’re living the life they’ve always led, fishing the sea for food and for sale. The difference is they have a tool that’s outpaced that simpler way of life.

I’ve seen the same thing happen with plastic, that innocuous everyday piece of tech. Back in the day, trash was mostly organic. Toss a mango peel or some bones out your window and it would just recycle itself back into the earth. Everything else was more permanent. Spoons, forks, chopsticks, plates, and cloth bags were all washed and reused. Anything that wasn’t permanent you could actually throw on the ground and know that it was going to the best place possible, back into the earth from whence it came.

We experienced this on the boat. We tossed our organic garbage into the ocean once we were over the deep. There it sank to the bottom or was consumed by the wildlife. No big deal. Bananas fall in the ocean all the time and don’t kill the environment so what’s another peel or two.

The high tech disposable culture, however, has found its way into this more natural way of life. The disposable culture relies on cheaply made, highly sophisticated pieces of technology. Plastic bags and Styrofoam are today’s banana leaf wrappers and cloth bags. They are the containers that hold food and produce. They are cheap and do a better job of protecting what they hold than their organic counterparts. They are also nearly indestructible.

The problem is, these fabulous substances aren’t built for a culture that still has a rural, agrarian mindset. A mindset that throws its organic garbage into the wildlife. Now, when someone throws a plastic bag out a window, it stays around forever. It doesn’t disappear into the ground. It isn’t broken down and eaten by insects and wildlife. It is litter.

Evidence of the clash of technology and culture was front and center when we hit the pier after our scuba trip. Underneath the stilt houses were piles of trash. Plastic bags and plastic wrappers, mostly. The residents just threw them out the windows when they were finished with them. Unlike their food refuse, though, the plastic was there to stay.

As we motored into the harbor, we passed fishing boats heading out to sea. It was near dusk and time for the fishermen to make their living. Diesel motors powered their boats out to sea. Some carried nets. Others more than likely carried dynamite. A mix of old and new.

If you want to save the environment, forget chasing down whale ships or sabotaging tree cutters. Just come up with a biodegradable substance that can be used in place of plastic. That or try to explain to the poor of the world with a straight face that they need to start picking up their litter otherwise they’re hurting the planet—you know the same planet where they don’t have potable water and make less in a month than you make in one hour. I think the time’s better spent in a lab.

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