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Getting rid of the garbage

In the last few years, both corruption and environmental issues have achieved a higher priority in Indonesia. That is, people are talking more about these twin evils. Nobody is doing much about either yet, and despite all the rhetoric, there is no discernible difference. Nevertheless, on the glass is half-full side of the equation, at least talking about these things is a step in the right direction. Who knows, maybe we’ll progress to actually walking the walk.


Published in The Jakarta Post (

Environmental crime and graft: Evil twins

The Jakarta Post , Jakarta Wed, 06/09/2004 9:25 AM Opinion

Patrick Guntensperger



If you ask any group of reasonably intelligent people to list the gravest problems in the world today, several perennial favorites can usually be predicted to show up on the list. Along with terrorism, corruption and poverty, the environment can usually be counted upon to make the top ten, with the flavors of the week and issues of special interest rounding out the contenders.

Schools today, in developed nations as well as Third World countries, teach their students about environmental issues. Many major daily newspapers have a section devoted to the topic and most run at least a regular column and frequent features on it. It is fair to say that the destruction of this planet’s environment is known to be in crisis by pretty much everyone who breathes occasionally.

And yet, observation of any large city in the world impresses us with the indifference displayed by people over their contributions to this crisis. It’s not a lack of awareness; everyone knows we have a problem. It’s not a lack of scientific understanding of the details of the problem; you don’t have to be rocket scientist to know that plastic wrappings thrown in the street are going to stay there until someone takes them away.

So why do people who know they are polluting, who know that pollution is killing us and who can see the effects of pollution on their immediate environment continue to act as though there is nothing to worry about?

The answer is that it isn’t an awareness problem or even a knowledge problem any more. At this point in history, the early 21st Century, the problem is a moral one. Polluting is a sin against humanity.

And that’s why it is so hard to cope with. Immoral behavior, particularly when it carries financial benefits, is virtually impossible to eliminate and extraordinarily unresponsive to persuasion.

Criminalizing specific behavior is a step in the right direction; it doesn’t eliminate the behavior but it gives us a tool to help control it. Just as laws against crimes like theft and murder have not and never will eliminate those acts from humanity’s vast repertoire of reprehensible behavior, laws against willful or negligent environmental assaults can’t stop all eco-criminals, but they do put them clearly outside of the pale of respectable society.

Corporations lobby governments to refrain from passing laws prohibiting such behavior and whine when the existing laws are enforced. Or they simply find ways to circumvent the laws when it is considered too expensive to comply with them. Corporations, to put it baldly, kill people because to refrain from doing so would reduce their profits. More precisely, those individual human beings who make the corporate decision to pollute rather than treat their waste are murderers. And they murder for money.

This is not a failure to be aware of environmental issues. This is not a gap in their scientific understanding. This is a moral failure. This is sociopathic behavior. This failure of the moral compass to kick in and guide people away from knowingly committing acts that kill fellow human beings is a result of the most banal motive for crime: Greed.

On the large scale it is that simple; non-polluting measures cost money. The corporate bosses want to keep that money for themselves, so they pollute. They kill people in order to have more money.

And that is why it is so hard to stop. And, as a corollary to that problem, that is why corruption, collusion and nepotism continue to exist unabated in Indonesia. The callous, short term, profit oriented criminals find it cheaper and therefore more personally profitable to engage in acts of corruption, so they won’t clean up their acts; why on earth should they?

Corruption will continue to be a source of shame to the people of Indonesia, just like pollution, as long as a climate exists that not only allows those antisocial acts to be profitable but also permits the worst offenders to hold their heads up publicly. A corrupt official, just like a polluter, should not be acceptable to members of the community he betrays.

Environmental crime, like corruption in government, exists because people are greedy and self-serving. And it is not just the official who demands or accepts the bribe who is guilty…the private citizen who pays a bribe contributes to the crime. We allow bribery to exist because we are too lazy to do things legally.

We allow pollution to exist because we are too lazy or too greedy to spend the extra time or money it costs to dispose of our waste safely. Because they reflect the same kind of thinking, the level of environmental pollution is a fairly reliable gauge of the level of corruption in a country. Has anyone noticed the garbage in the streets of our country lately? Both kinds of garbage?


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