Institutt for sosialantropologi
master's thesis

"Water is life, Life is Water" - Environmental Engagements in Thailand


Master's thesis submitted at Department of Social Anthropology, spring 2020.

By: Daniel Oliver Paulsen
Supervisor: Professor Olaf Smedal

In this thesis I aim to shed light on how environmental engagement can unfold in Thailand – in an authoritarian regime with insufficient waste management infrastructure and lack of well-organized environmental regulations. I present three environmental campaigns in Thailand that transpired during my fieldwork in Bangkok, from July to December 2018. First is Trash Hero Bangkok, a volunteer-based NGO that arrange weekly trash clean-ups in Bangkok. The second is a trash clean-up event organized by Thammasat University in Bangkok, which lasted for fourteen days. Third, is Chak Daeng monastery in Bangkok, where the monks have built facilities to reprocess waste into new commodities and educate the local community about sustainability and environmental awareness. All the campaigns aspired to change Thai’s mindset about the environment and inspire increased environmental awareness and action to mitigate Thailand’s waste leakage by encouraging people to reduce, reuse and recycle.

By drawing on Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s analysis of environmental engagements in Gladstone, Australia, I assess in each abovementioned case, what type of environmental engagement is practiced and their level of ambivalence in confronting a double bind. The double bind when performing Thai environmentalism, I argue throughout this thesis, is as an environmentalist being acute to the fact that without being able to scrutinize the authoritarian Thai leadership in a call for systemic change and end to corruption, the environmentalists’ efforts may all be in vain. In this regard, I examine five typologies of environmental engagements that I observed in the field, and its level of inherent ambivalence in addressing the double bind. In chapter two, The Fifth Tiger, I detail the emergence of the hegemonic ideology of ‘Thainess’, in which I argue plays a decisive part in the framing and practice of environmentalism in Thailand. Chapter three details the current state of pollution in Thailand. In chapter four I present how Trash Hero organized their events, in addition to a large event in an urban village in Bangkok named Rama 9 Village. Chapter five details the Thammasat University campaign and the practice at Chak Daeng monastery. Furthermore, I discuss the Thai educational system in relation to Thai conceptions of environmental problems by drawing on interviews with informants and interlocuters. In the thesis final remarks, I end with a discussion of the events as sites for a possible reimagining of ‘Thainess’ in relation to environmentalism by drawing on Victor Turner’s liminoid event.