Leadership and the Environment

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279: Role model and global leader Mechai Viravaidya

Ep. 279

Here are the notes I read from for this episode


I've said we don't have many role models. Well I found one. I was wrong. I'm going to tell you about a man I briefly mentioned in one of my episodes on Alan Weisman's book Countdown.

He exposes the absolute self-pitying lie that what one person do doesn't matter. Also the lie that government has to act first, or corporations. On the contrary, the fastest, most effective way for them to act is for people to act first. Yes you, here and now can make a difference.

This guy made enormous nation-size headway in the face of government lethargy and complacency on one of the most challenging issues. Most people won't even talk about population and most people enough to realize how it underlies every other environmental issue.

Then most people can't stop their knee-jerk reactions to the same misconceptions. They associate it with

  • China's one child policy
  • Eugenics
  • Forced sterilization and abortions

Despite most fears and misconceptions, this man made enormous progress. He's not the only one, but I'm starting with him.

From his biography's back cover:

In Thailand, a condom is called a "Mechai". Mechai Viravaidya, Thailand's condom King, has used this most anatomically suggestive contraceptive device to turn the conventional family planning establishment on its head. First came condom-blowing contests, then T-shirts with condom shrouded anthropomorphic penises. Then condom key rings followed by a Cabbages and Condoms restaurant, When it comes to condoms, no one has been more creative than the Condom King.

To equate Mechai with condoms or family planning alone underestimates the man and fails to capture his essence. Mechai Viravaidya is engaged in a relentless pursuit to improve the well-being of the poor by giving them the tools to lead a fruitful and productive life. His achievements in family planning, AIDS prevention, and rural development are a means to an end - the alleviation of poverty in Thailand.

Mechai's journey From Condoms To Cabbages - from his roots in family planning to his goal of poverty alleviation - has spanned 34 years. Along the way, he has been labeled a visionary iconoclast and cheerful revolutionary. He is also an ordinary man from modest origins.

From Wikipedia on Mechai:

Mechai Viravaidya is a former politician and activist in Thailand who promoted condoms, family planning and AIDS awareness in Thailand. Since the 1970s, Mechai has been affectionately known as "Mr. Condom", and condoms are often referred as "mechais" in Thailand. From the time that he began his work, the average number of children in Thai families has decreased from 7 to 1.5.

in 1966 started to work in family planning, emphasizing the use of condoms. In 1973, he left the civil service and founded a non-profit service organization, the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), to continue his efforts to improve the lives of the rural poor He used such events as holding condom blowing contests for school children, encouraging taxi drivers to hand out condoms to their customers, and founding a restaurant chain called Cabbages and Condoms, where condoms are given to customers with the bill.

On PDA:

The Population and Community Development Association (PDA) is a non-governmental organization in Thailand. Its goal is to reduce poverty through both development initiatives and family planning programs. Originally called the Community-Based Family Planning Service, it was founded by Mechai Viravaidya in 1974. In the early 1970s, Viravaidya was the Minister of Industry but became frustrated with the government's inability to implement a national family planning policy. In his work with the government, he identified a direct correlation between Thailand's poverty and population growth. His immediate concern was the high population growth rate of 3.2%, which equated to approximately seven children per family.

Initially, the PDA sought to reduce population growth by focusing on efforts both to combat child mortality and to encourage family planning. Viravaidya deduced that family planning would not be widely adopted in Thailand if children did not survive. Therefore, his solution to controlling population growth, which was at 3.3%, was to target maternal and child healthcare. At the same time, the PDA made various methods of birth control accessible to rural populations. The PDA discovered that birth control pills were used by only 20% of the population because getting them required access to medical personnel. To target the remaining 80% of the country, the PDA invested in multiple initiatives - including the popularization of free condoms, increased access to birth control, incentives for women to not become pregnant, and slogans to encourage smaller families.

The Thai family planning programs met notable success. By 2015, total fertility had dropped to 1.5 children per woman. Following on the drop in unwanted fertility, the poverty rate dropped sharply; from 32.4% in 2003 10.9% in 2013.

The Population and Community Development Association has used many different strategies to promote its programs. Often the strategies are considered unique or creative. Some of these strategies include:

Efforts to make condoms more accessible & remove the stigma associated with them, like

  • Holding condom balloon blowing competitions
  • Creating a Captain Condom mascot
  • Making condoms available at associated Cabbages & Condoms restaurants in lieu of mints
  • Educating children in school
  • Having Buddhist monks sprinkle holy water on condoms
  • Overseeing a "Condom is the Girl's Best Friend" campaign
  • Having police officers distribute condoms in a "Cops and Rubbers" program

Encouraging vasectomies by

  • Making donations into a community fund for every vasectomy performed
  • Holding a vasectomy lunch for Americans in Thailand

Increasing the availability of birth control pills

  • By utilizing floating markets to provide contraceptives/birth control pill
  • By training of local shopkeepers to prescribe birth control pill

Educating the population about HIV/AIDS

  • By using of military radio stations

Encouraging development

  • By making micro-loans available to general villagers at relatively low interest rates, especially for villages that use contraceptives
  • By creating village banks operated by (mostly) women within the village community


Links:

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294: Population: How Much Is Too Much?

Ep. 294
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293: Alan Weisman: My Greatest Source of Environmental Hope

Ep. 293
Alan Weisman's book Countdown changed my strategy to the environment. It ranks among the top most influential works I've read, watched, or come across, up there with Limits to Growth.Why? Because when you look at environmental issues enough, and it shouldn't take too long these days, population always rises to the top as one of the top issues. Many people today hear about projections that the population will level off around 10 billion. Actually, the ones I see project that the population will keep growing exponentially then, just slower than now.If you only look at one issue---only climate, only deforestation, or only extinctions---they seem possibly solvable, but they're all linked. Solving several at once---say meeting power needs while the economy falls apart and food becomes scarce---looks impossible.Also, since nothing deliberate limits population growth, we're lucky if it levels off. We aren't choosing where to level it off and 10 billion looks three to five times what the Earth can sustain. Cultural changes could promote more growth. Many populations are promoting maximum growth today---very powerful religions and autocratic rulers for example.I don't want to rely on luck for our species' survival. Besides, my research into what Earth can sustain says that we're over the limit. If we're heading toward a cliff, simply maintaining our speed and not accelerating doesn't stop us. We have to decelerate.Despite the convergence of all these issues, for years I held back from talking about population. People don't like others meddling in their personal lives. I don't want the government in my bedroom. People overwhelmingly associate population talk with China's one child policy, eugenics, and Nazis. I did too. I didn't see how I could improve a situation by suggesting to avoid misery later through misery now.Still, I knew some cultures---island nations that lived centuries or longer, for example, or the bushmen in southern Africa whose archeological record went back hundreds of thousands of years---kept their populations level, so they must have developed some mechanism.In some past episode of this podcast, with Jared Angaza, for example, I pondered aloud how to find out how they did it, though it may have come up when I was a guest on his podcast. I could only wonder what worked but couldn't promote what I didn't know.Countdown changed all that. Alan found and reported on numerous examples in today's world of cultures lowering their birth rates without coercion, without top-down government authority, voluntarily, desired by all participants, leading to abundance, prosperity, peace, and stability, the opposite of where overpopulation takes us.Countdown tells stories of 21 places, some promoting growth and results aren't pretty and some where they've lowered birth rates and they're remarkably pleasant, even prosperous and stable. He talks about the top ones in this episode.We have tough times ahead of us. One change simplifies everything---a smaller population achieved voluntarily, peacefully, joyfully. Alan has researched firsthand more than almost anyone. He has more than enough reason to despair if he wanted to. If he's not, I conclude that everything he's found nets out to say we can do this.Family planning, education, and contraception seem technologies and practices that can work more than carbon sequestration, solar planes, and everything else. They're cheap, they're available, they make sex more fun, they've overcome cultural resistance outside the gates of the Vatican!Read his books and Limits to Growth.I'll do my best to bring him back.Past episodes I based on Alan's books258: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman251: Let's make overpopulation only a finance issue250: Why talk about birthrate and population so much?248: Countdown, a book I recommend by Alan Weisman