As European scientists and explorers plied the world’s oceans with their unrivaled maritime technology in the 16th through 19th centuries, searching for new territories to study, catalog, and conquer, they brought their ideas with them. So when they saw the lush, green landscapes of the tropics, they envisioned these places as Edens that could nurture them. The Romanticism of the late 18th and 19th centuries led many Europeans to see virtue, purity, and the chance for redemption in faraway lands and their indigenous peoples, the “noble savages.”
The Europeans nevertheless often ruthlessly exploited many of these people and places, taking their resources, inhabitants, and, eventually, the products of indigenous labor to drive economic expansion back home. In some cases the dogs, pigs, and rats the Europeans brought with them changed the ecology of colonized places by spreading seeds from Europe and devouring all the ground-dwelling birds and other animals not adapted to predators. Wild game populations fell, some went extinct, and European explorers and scientists began to see firsthand how vulnerable and rapidly changing nature can be.
The small size of some of the tropical islands gave early modern scientists a visceral sense of ecological limits that the large extent and gradual changes in Europe had obscured. In his book Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Orgins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860, Richard Grove argues that modern environmentalism originated with these experiences. Europeans watched “paradise” sour before their eyes in many cases.
Today, the image of paradise lingers over some tropical islands, perhaps none more famously than Bali, a 90-mile-wide island in the middle of the archipelago nation of Indonesia. Although Dutch colonization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t dramatically degrade Bali’s ecology, much of the island having been intensively farmed well before colonization, the story today is different. Like the supposed Edens of St. Helena and Mauritius before it, Bali is undergoing rapid change and much degradation due to the pressures of tourism and rapid economic development. This time, the local inhabitants themselves are driving most of the change by heartily embracing the modern life: wage labor or business ownership, refrigerators, cars, smartphones — though many are having second thoughts.
Agricultural lands, mostly rice fields, are being converted to hotels and villas on a large scale (and those that remain are infused with pesticides); non-organic trash is getting dumped everywhere or burned, which causes plastics in the trash to release dangerous dioxins; sewage drains into rivers; water supplies are dwindling (groundwater levels are falling in half the regencies); and the roads in some villages are clogged for hours every day with cars, buses, and trucks. And those are only the most prominent problems.
Yet Bali remains a magnet for tourists, with about five million visitors (domestic and international) a year and growing. Why do so few visitors seem to care about the pollution and rampant development on the island?
Images of paradise in our minds block our view of foul air and trash-filled streams. We instead see what we’re supposed to see: verdant rice fields, cone-shaped volcanoes in the distance, and a society pulsating with ceremonies, performances, delicious food, and art. Don’t get me wrong: Bali is a truly special place in the world. I visit there because I have many Balinese friends, having spent several years there studying the performing arts. But I’ve heard people calling Bali paradise within sight (and smell) of a cloud of black diesel exhaust billowing from a noisy truck hauling building materials.
It’s no accident that the notion of Bali as paradise obscures problems on the island — that’s by design. You see, in the first decade of the 20th century, as the Dutch sought to extend their control of Bali from the northern part of the island to the south, they marched on the palaces of the royal families of the two most intractable districts, Badung and Klungkung. Those royal families and their attendants committed ritual mass suicide rather than submit to Dutch control and give up their existing relationships to their people and land. Provoked, the Dutch soldiers fired upon the bloody crowd stabbing themselves and each other with daggers. Wishing to put these incidences behind them, to obscure them from memory, and to promote tourism for economic development and the enrichment of the colonial coffers, the Dutch colonial administration actively developed the idea of Bali as paradise as official propaganda, according to Bali scholar Adrian Vickers.
Persisting in the belief of Bali as paradise while trash fires burn nearby is an example of what psychologists call “confirmation bias”: We accept data that confirm our strongly held views (political stances, attitudes toward nature, understanding of what constitutes a family) and dismiss evidence that would require us to change our opinions.
In my view confirmation bias operates on us every day in America and elsewhere, inhibiting choices that would be better for the environment, such as taking the bus rather than driving. Most of us believe that there are significant environmental problems and perhaps even a global environmental crisis, but in our own experience, we breathe air, drink water, and eat food that all seems fairly healthy and sustaining. Confirmation bias probably influences us to accept the latter as direct evidence that environmental problems are not yet big enough to require major lifestyle changes — and reject information about species going extinct and clean water becoming scarcer. The air is still okay today; I can drive!
Just like the idea of paradise that keeps people pouring into Bali and helps them ignore the environmental degradations they see while there, in the United States we have images of untrammeled wilderness and national parks that remind us that there is still nature out there that has largely escaped the deleterious effects of our industrial economy. Such images may give us the “plausible deniability” that there are environmental threats that need our urgent and decisive action. These mental pictures of paradise and wilderness may act as blinders that make it harder to see and respond to our problems. So hidden in the case of Bali, paradise, and trash may be a lesson for us back in our more industrialized world. How are images and fantasies of beautiful nature making it harder to see the damages we’re inflicting?
Learn about my book: Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment.
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Read more of my posts on The Green Mind.
 Grove, Richard. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Orgins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860. Cambridge England; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
 Vickers, Adrian. Bali: A Paradise Created, Hong Kong: Periplus Editions, 1989.