So we have been suffering from terrible haze in Malaysia this year, caused by forest fires originating in either Indonesia or Malaysia itself, depending on who you believe. The density of the haze on any given day has been less intense than the ‘haze season’ last year, but the spread of hazy days has been much wider. I can measure this from family coming to visit – in March, June and then October. On each of these occasions their visits were blighted by the haze. Normally the ‘season’ is most intense in June and then tapers away….not this year.
Last week we also experienced the smog in Shanghai, which was truly terrible. Choking and accrid, I felt asthmatic. Throat and eyes hurting, very difficult to breathe, the only respite being indoors in air-conditioning.
There are some commonalities to this Malaysian haze and Shanghainese smog – namely both are the side-effects of a populous Asia, with growing economies (Malaysia’s GDP growth in Q1 this year was 6.8%). These economies are consuming and manufacturing in ever greater numbers, whilst concurrently there is a less developed sense of the fragility of the natural environment. Chairman Mao said that nature was man’s enemy, to be tamed and controlled, bent to man’s will. This kind of thinking is still prevalent today in Asia.
The severity with which the haze and smog blight quality of life is extraordinary. Schools shut. Children unable to play outdoors. People restricted from exercising. Life curtailed and limited. Breathing, that very signature of being alive, difficult. It is so bad, that it is increasingly hard to hire expats in Beijing or Shanghai – they simply don’t want the pollution in their lives.
But here’s the thing – it’s a wonderfully democratic blight – effecting the rich and poor equally. It’s also something that’s impossible to cover-up, a most real, tangible, indicator of the state of our planet and the price we pay for un-shepherded tapping of our natural resources. And for that we must thank the haze and the smog, because without them, no-one would notice. They are un-ignorable. They are undeniable. They are forcing the issue of the environment into the public domain on a continent learning the trade-offs that come with rapid economic growth. Without them, there would be less action and less (no?) debate. And for that, whilst we cough and splutter, we must also be thankful in a way.