Ishwor Thapa awoke on the morning of April 26, 2015 with one mission for that day in mind: get to the Gorkha district where his parents lived. The area was the epicenter of Nepal’s most devastating earthquake of the last 100 years.
Thapa hadn’t been able to reach his family the night before and feared the worst. He spent the whole day riding through the streets of Kathmandu on his motorcycle, watching brick houses come crashing down. His knew his parents’ mud house, which was 150 kilometers closer to the hardest-hit area, didn’t stand a chance.
But he held on to hope. He jumped on his bike and arrived a few hours later to find that his family’s house gone.
His loved ones, though, were safe. His father, mother, uncle and aunt had survived. He started helping them set up a temporary shelter.
The previous day—the day the earthquake struck—a man named Aanand Mishra gathered as many people as he could from his youth-driven NGO, CREASION, to begin helping the wounded and dying in Kathmandu and the surrounding areas. Mishra had known he wanted to pursue work in the social sector since he was a teenager, and he still thinks that demographic was the most effective during the country’s recovery.
“It was very difficult for all of us, but we all need to thank the young Nepalis,” Mishra said. “Thanks to them, things did not go wrong.”
I heard both Thapa’s and Mishra’s accounts during my first full day in Nepal. In the morning, I rode up to a village outside Kathmandu called Bhurunchuli. Employees from Bottlers Nepal Limited (a
After witnessing a foundation-laying ceremony, we heard from Mishra about what a successful rebuilding process has looked like in a village that was laid to waste a year and a half ago.
Ishwor Thapa (center) at dinner with fellow Bottlers Nepal Limited Associates
Ishwor Thapa (center) at dinner with fellow Bottlers Nepal Limited Associates
A few hours later, I ate dinner with Thapa and several other employees from BNL who recounted their experiences of the events of April 25, 2015. Some had been on the job when the earthquake struck and scrambled to safety under cars and office chairs. Others had lost family members: one man named Shyam had only made it halfway out of his house before it came crashing down, crushing his legs and burying him in rubble. A few hours later, he was rescued, only to find out in the coming hours that his wife hadn’t made it out of the house.
I sat and listened and wrote down their stories, told by people who now almost 18 months later, seemed far more hopeful than discouraged or even indifferent.
I was on the opposite side of the room from the associates sharing their memories. I sat on the ground at the low-lying table that is characteristic of traditional Nepali restaurants like this. On both sides of me were women doing the same. We’d be traveling together for the next few days. I hadn’t envisioned my first trip to Asia being a four-day blogger trip with six moms, but that’s what it was.
I can’t say I'm at all disappointed. For the first two months of my internship at
I hadn’t considered the influence some of them have had online. Midway through my internship, my friend Kevin, who was interning with the company’s Bottling Investment Group (BIG), had been assigned to do some research on the topic that involved perusing the homepages of some bloggers whom the company had already taken on trips or was considering inviting to future excursions. “I had no idea,” he said. “Millions of people read these. It’s a whole…thing.”
That’s not the point, though. We’re in an era where bloggers have a major influence on public perception. The point is that I went to Nepal with a different perspective than everyone I was traveling with. I was the only male on our trip. I was the only one writing stories for The
It wasn’t until my last full day in Kathmandu that I learned that the median age of Nepali people is 22 years—my age. I was visiting the Himalayan Climate Initiative, an NGO that, apart from its founder, is made up entirely of Millennials. The Initiative’s 29-year-old CEO, Shilshila Acharya, walked away from a full MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine) scholarship to pursue a career in environmental science. Her first job was at HCI.
Until then, Acharya had always prioritized the science behind climate resilience. She says that’s not how she thinks anymore.
“HCI had equal focus on climate resilience and inclusion,” Acharya told me. "I got the ‘climate resilience’ part. That was what I studied. But I didn’t get the ‘inclusion’ part so much when I first joined HCI. I have slowly come to understand—in a deeper sense—the big role inclusion plays in development. In Nepal, to develop the green economic way—that means inclusion.”
For Acharya, inclusion means more than educating the public about the human impact on climate change. It means more than leading a staff that’s 70 percent women, setting an example for businesses and NGOs that is almost unheard of in Nepal. It even means more than pulling enough people into the conversation to get the government to approve a nationwide ban on plastic bags.
HCI started making “inclusion” mean something new when it began hiring women who had previously been trafficked and giving them respectable jobs in waste management—an oxymoron in Southeast Asia. But HCI pays their workers fair wages, enough that one PET plastics sorter named Pabitra was able to start sending her kids to school once she moved to Kathmandu.
One person who gives Acharya just as much encouragement is a woman who doesn’t have to be there sorting bottles at all. She’s getting a bachelor’s degree, her husband is a lawyer, and she doesn’t need to work on a daily basis. She comes anyway.
“No one with her level of education would consider doing this kind of work,” Acharya says. “But she said ‘Why should I feel ashamed about my work?’...In them, I have a found a pride.”
If Acharya could see anything happen while at the helm of HCI, it would be for the bond between the natural environment and social life to turn on like a lightbulb in people’s heads; for Nepali people to strive for the wonderful community that responsible consumption can create.
“When I was a kid, when I used to hear global leaders urging people to take efforts at local and community levels at big conferences, I used to think that talking to people at the local level is just to sound nice and inclusive of those people," she said. “But now I have come to realize that each of our individual actions at local level have contributed to the problem at a global level. So eventually the solution also boils down to our efforts at individual and local level.”
So, Acharya says, along with the policy advocacy approach, HCI has taken the bottom-up approach—educating people one by one. It’s going to take a long time to implement the right laws to back them up, but right now, it’s really the only option. The national government hasn’t been able to pass legislation that is cohesive or inclusive enough of all kinds of people—particularly those in rural areas—to change people’s actions. So HCI is trying to change people’s mindsets one at a time, bringing everyone into the movement, from the previously trafficked waste management worker to the lawyer’s wife who just wants to make a difference. The driving force of HCI’s movement, though, are young people across Nepal.
As groups like HCI continue to relate to the country’s youth, Acharya sees their message spreading.
“We don’t have to spend much time debating about the issue of sustainability, she said. “…When you’re talking to the youth, they get it in two seconds.”
My conversation with Acharya left me happy that she has such hope in the fact that her generation change will change Nepal. It was also pretty sobering to think about the “individual level” of stewardship of the earth.
The individual level is when conviction sets in and things start to get uncomfortable for people, myself included. The night before I spoke to Acharya, I watched the recently released National Geographic documentary “Before the Flood”. It’s a softer—but no less affecting—look at the issue of climate change than probably most films on the subject, opting for interviews with President Barack Obama and John Kerry and awe-inspiring, wide shots of the melting surface of Greenland rather than deep dives into scientific data. There was one interview that hit me pretty hard, and it wasn’t with a high-profile American politician. It was between two people whose walks of life couldn’t have been any different.
“I’m sorry to say this, and I know you’re an American…but your consumption is going to really put a hole in the planet,” a woman working for an Indian NGO said in the film. “I think that’s the conversation we need to have.”
The woman highlighted the fact that the average American consumes 34 times the amount of energy that the average Indian consumes. She also reminded us that the example the developed world sets on climate issues has impacted the way people in places like Southeast Asia see them. So did Acharya.
“(Nepali people) who want excuses not to change their habits say ‘Even in the U.S., plastic bags are still being used. If the developed world is doing it, we should be able to, too.’ In terms of overconsumption, developed countries are setting a wrong example,” Acharya said.
Nepal’s younger generations think differently. HCI thinks differently. I should think differently. My consumption is putting a hole in the planet. But I know my generation at home is starting to think differently as well. I hope we can take up the mindset that Acharya has—to say no to anything that’s not needed. That’s going to take a long time for Americans. It’s going to take a long time for Nepalis, too.
“If you look at a cocoon for a long time, it looks like it hasn’t changed,” Acharya said. “The change is happening inside. Then at one moment, a butterfly emerges, and everything changes. When all the countries signed the (climate) agreement in Paris, I had a feeling that everyone in the world got together. Some day, there will be a tipping point.”