Intentional forest fires choke Singapore and spread global climate peril

Haze in Singapore

Got smog? Haze in Singapore last week hearkens back to 1940s Los Angeles. Photo: W.R. Flynn.

My wife and I arrived in Singapore last week with our two teenage daughters for a short vacation with relatives who have a house in the rolling hills of the Upper Paya Lebar district. Before we departed the USA we were oblivious to the haze which had just started to creep over the island nation, a smoky presence delivered by the wind blowing in from Indonesia.

For the first few days the air here wasn’t too bad. My oldest daughter and I jogged through the meandering streets of the quiet residential neighborhood for forty minutes each morning before sunrise, as we often do here since it’s cooler, usually dipping below 80 degrees before the sun rises. Although no stars were visible in the cloudless sky, which isn’t unusual in a country that is so thoroughly illuminated at night schoolchildren grow up without ever seeing stars, it wasn’t difficult to breathe. Visibility was still okay and the lights from the distant skyscrapers and countless high rise flats and condominiums could be seen from many kilometers away. Then early last Monday morning, as we opened the front door to begin our daily pre-dawn run, the smell of wood burning slapped us hard in the face.

I was aware that the Sumatran rainforests were being systematically destroyed to make land available for palm oil fuel plantations and, to a lesser extent, for other crops and mining. But to actually breathe the thick smoke from the fires intentionally set to clear the tropical forest land was incredible and that’s how the air has been in Singapore since Monday morning.

There is no escape from the smell. Respirators cover the mouths and noses of the ever-present clusters of people waiting at bus stops. Police cars driven by tough men breathing through the ever-present white masks weave through the heavy traffic. Visibility through the brownish grey haze ranges from a few blocks to a kilometer or two, depending on the time of day and the mood of the prevailing winds. The haze has now permeated everywhere. It’s indoors and into our clothes. They’ve acquired a camping smell that won’t go away after passing through a load of laundry. It’s like the way the smoke from a campfire clings to the skin and to every fiber of clothing after a camping trip.

The tropical humidity and 95 degree heat make breathing difficult enough, even when the air is clear. But this thick, smoky haze is something else altogether. Taking in a lungful of this air requires an odd conscious effort. Everyone passing by has red eyes. My eyes constantly feel like they did an hour after I was pepper sprayed during a law enforcement training exercise many years ago. A thin white dust forms on exposed skin after the perspiration dries.

The government uses the Pollutant Standards Index to measure the haze from the fires. In 1997 the PSI in Singapore reached an all-time high reading in the 220s. Yesterday it was 371. The government claims air at this level is “very unhealthy.” In spite of this, the government is reluctant to close schools, offices or curtail outdoor construction activity because it’s too costly. Plus, they claim no one knows when the fires will stop and the country can’t simply be closed indefinitely. It is a valid point.

Well the burning of the tropical rainforests will certainly stop, in time. They’ll stop when the forests are completely burned and gone forever.

I mentioned this to my oldest daughter this morning, as we again cancelled our morning run. I also suggested that she should remember this week in Singapore because we’re now breathing the air from the last of the world’s tropical rainforests.

The mad rush to convert the last of the Indonesian rainforests into profitable plantations growing renewable energy in the form of palm oil, marketed as eco-friendly and green, will proceed whether we like it or not. The Indonesian government makes money from taxes and fees raised when palm oil is sold. The companies producing the fuels, many of which are listed on the Singapore stock exchange, profit handsomely from the palm oil trade.

Most importantly, the burning must continue because humanity’s hunger for cheap energy in this post peak oil era is utterly insatiable. Humans have decided that a few million additional barrels of biodiesel is more important than a tropical rainforest. That’s why the fires must keep burning.

— W. R. Flynn, Transition Voice

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  1. James R. Martin says

    “Most importantly, the burning must continue because humanity’s hunger for cheap energy in this post peak oil era is utterly insatiable. Humans have decided that a few million additional barrels of biodiesel is more important than a tropical rainforest. That’s why the fires must keep burning.”

    . . . . . .


    When we deeply and thouroughly examine what our energy dependency and depletion situation calls for, we will see that we are called to create (or re-create) towns and cities which depend on less and less energy inputs — and fast. But the capitalist-industrial cultures and civilization we’re embedded in imagines the problem very differently. It asks, “How can we keep the energy intensive physical culture going, growing … indefinitely?” Perhaps it is due to the profit motive that this is so? After all, bicycles and pedestrianism add virtually nothing to GDP or financially measured bottom lines.

    Instead, we should imagine our situation as one calling for a Quality Of Life (QOL) revolution (non-violent revolution, of course!), in which we’re more self-honest about the “externalities” which economists and politicians prefer not to enter onto the ledger of “progress, success, development…”. In such an imaginative field, we’d liberate our creativity and redirect our energies so that QOL trumps mere GDP (or corporate bottom lines, or government revenues). There won’t be anything external to our considerations; and money would be recognized as far too thin a guage for measuring good.

    It’s difficult for most of us to imagine a much improved world situation, a better world, which depends on a small fraction of the energy inputs of the current world situation (or economic modality). Doing so is essential and crucial to future human prospects. And doing so will require us to understand and acknowledge the absurdity of our current capitalist-industrial system’s outrageous guzzling and gulping.
    We have been told that we can’t live happily and well without such guzzling and gulping. But it just isn’t so. And only those whose imaginations are not capitalist-industrial-corporate implants are imaginative enough to know why.

    One cannot imagine a viable path to a low energy (LE) yet high QOL society unless one can also imagine a transformation of politics. Politics as usual will not provide such a path. So politics, too, should be re-imagined. Radically so. We cannot await (sit on our hands and wait) a political majority of folks who are on board with a non-violent LE-QOL revolution. Not everyone’s imaginative lights will turn on all at once. First 2%, then 4% … then 10% will have the lights come on. Meanwhile, they will be transforming the world — one small place at a time. Eventually, democracy itself will be re-imagined and transformed. The emerging democratic societies won’t obstruct progress while awaiting political majority. They’ll roll up their sleeves and get to work — together, collabortively, as small (but growing) direct actors.

    Imagine it.

  2. TR says

    A question for each & everyone.
    How much carbon was burned to maintain your lifestyle on planet Earth today?
    My response: OH! Am I part of the problem?

  3. W. R. Flynn says

    I wanted to share this Wikipedia page. It states that the Indonesian rainforest will be gone by 2018. I presume some will remain, either in mountainous, difficult to farm regions, and in the remnants of a few of the parks and reserves, primarily set aside to attract tourist revenue. The biodiversity of the Indonesian tropical rainforest is (was?) exceeded only by that of the Amazon and Congo rainforests, both of which will soon be destroyed by energy-hungry (food=energy) humans.

    In Asia, Indonesia isn’t alone. To the immediate north of Singapore is West Malaysia, which I passed through a few years ago in a bus, a bus powered by renewable biodiesel according to the green leaf-festooned emblem affixed to the back. Starting from Singapore and all the way to KL, the road cut through what was once a tropical rainforest, one of the richest on Earth. Now it’s like driving through Nebraska or Iowa, except instead of mile after mile of corn we passed through miles of palm oil trees.

    The lush forest which once covered the West Malaysian peninsula is completely gone (other than a few scattered parks and mountainous areas), mostly transformed into nation-wide, eco-friendly, green-energy-of-the-future plantations. And I do mean it is all gone. That transformation is the renewable energy path Indonesia is following, not because they hate the forest, but because, unless the 250 million people living there want to starve, they have, at least for now, absolutely no other choice. The economic and political pressure to complete the clearcutting of the Indonesian rainforest is immense and reaches not only to nearby countries such as Singapore and China, but stretches its financial grip around the globe.

    Oh, as an interesting aside, bear in mind that the bulk of the palm oil produced in Indonesia is shipped to Amsterdam where it is refined into bio-diesel (a few other products, too, but mostly it’s for fuel), then burned in vehicles thereby helping fulfill the EU renewable energy bio-fuel mandate.

    • says

      Thanks for the follow up, Bill. Aside from try to understand how tough folks have it over there and to mourn the loss of so much priceless rainforest, what can we do?

      Rich country consumers can certainly cut back our energy use. We can also campaign against bone-headed policies for bad ideas in the guise of clean energy like many types of biofuels.

      But do you think that one of these plans that have been discussed in NGO circles for a while, to pay poor countries to preserve their rainforest intact, is worthwhile?

  4. W. R. Flynn says

    In my opinion paying Indonesia or Malaysia or any other nation to set-aside a rainforest remnant would, at the very best, serve as a feel-good gesture (it’s mostly gone already) or merely delay the inevitable felling of the final tree and the extinction of the unbelievable bio-diversity the forests once nurtured. Something else may work, but I can’t imagine what it might be, particularly in Indonesia.

    Indonesia reached their peak in oil production about 1980 and became a net oil importer in early 2004. But their demand for fuel energy and food keeps climbing as their population increases and their quest to modernize moves forward. This means they have to turn somewhere for food and fuel. I do not believe there is enough money or resources available in the form of international governmental or NGO aid to offset the looming economic (and caloric) disaster facing that densely populated nation. The destruction of the rainforest will only delay the inevitable suffering for a brief time. Then, as foreign competition for the new crops intensifies there will be little remaining to consume domestically.

    Remember, even now most of the palm oil production is used elsewhere. And the revenue gained, the profit enjoyed, is diverted into the pockets of stock market investors in Singapore, Hong Kong, New York and wherever else shares in the huge international conglomerates growing palm oil are traded.

    The reason we read and hear so little about this calamity is that political and economic power controls not only governments, but the media. Little news of this will be shared with the public and only a very thin slice (maybe, if they’re lucky, just enough to avoid starvation) of that wealth will ever trickle down to the overwhelming majority of Indonesians.

    Sadly, the reason we cannot find a way to avoid this tragedy could be that there is none.

    • says

      It turns out that American companies are involved with this rainforest destruction. So here’s something small people can do. Ask one of those companies, Kellogg’s, to put pressure on its palm oil supplier, Wilmar International:

      Background: The rainforests of Indonesia are an ecological treasure: They’re home to critically endangered species like the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger, and they also store more carbon than the entire world emits in 9 years. Now snack and cereal giant Kellogg’s has made a huge deal with a company that’s wiping these forests off the map.

      Kellogg’s has just launched a partnership with Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm oil trader. The palm oil industry has had a devastating impact on the forests of Southeast Asia, wiping out millions of hectares of forest and releasing hundreds of millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. And even among palm oil companies, Wilmar is especially terrible: Satellite evidence recently proved that it’s been illegally logging on protected forests for decades.

      Wilmar’s record is so bad that Newsweek named it the least sustainable corporation in the world — worse than Exxon Mobil, TransCanada, and even Monsanto. We need to let Kellogg’s know that this deal is unacceptable.

      Tell Kellogg’s: Cut ties with Wilmar, the world’s least sustainable corporation, unless it agrees to clean up its act now!

  5. W. R. Flynn says

    Thanks for the information regarding Kellogg’s. We’ve now scratched them off our shopping list.

    Sometimes I get the feeling that if one boycotts major multinational food producers due to their adverse and callous regard for the rainforests a trip to the grocery store might require considerable research. As I type this I’m sipping coffee which, no matter where on Earth it was grown, is almost certain to have come from land that was, prior to human encroachment, a lush rainforest. In fact, I just realized that the desktop computer and keyboard I’m tapping on is positioned on a solid wooden table that was imported from Asia. It definitely came from a some rainforest, maybe even from Indonesia. It’s tough to escape from this ecological calamity. It’s tentacles reach everywhere, into every nook and cranny of our homes and into our very lungs.

    Five more years for Sumatra. Twenty or thirty more for the Amazon. Participating in positive actions, in this Good Fight, to save these remnant acres of rainforests just could turn the destructive tide. I’m not ready to quit quite yet. Although breathing that foul air in Singapore and hearing people comment that the fires will only burn for a few more years is more than a little demoralizing, I’ll admit.

    Here’s the contact information to let Kellogg’s know how you feel about their participation in this catastrophe. The call is free, only takes a minute.

    Kellogg’s Consumer Affairs
    P.O. Box CAMB
    Battle Creek, MI 49016

  6. James R. Martin says

    On the matter of paying countries not to destroy their rainforests, etc.: Reward (payment) is one possible option. “Punishment” might be a possible other option(?). I say this in the spirit of conversation and “brain storming”. Does Indonesia benefit from a large tourist trade? If so, perhaps Indonedia could be actively boycotted — with advertisements encouraging the boycott in major tourism magazines, newspapers, other magazines, radio…(?). Your thoughts? Other strategic ideas?

  7. W. R. Flynn says

    In 2005, tourism accounted for 7% of job opportunities and 5% of Indonesian GDP according to the ministry of Culture and Tourism as quoted in Wiki. It’s no small part of their economy. Unfortunately, a tourism boycott would hit the legions of lowest paid the hardest, and even then, it would probably only shave off a few percent points.

    The brainstorming sessions underway to determine what to do about the destruction of the Indonesian rainforests are everyone’s responsibility, but they should start in the EU where some of the worst elements of the faux green, renewable palm oil scamsters have nailed the rainforests the hardest with that horrifying biodiesel mandate.

    Fortunately there are moves underway to curb the mandate and that’s encouraging. But the real start to a solution would be to lobby for a total reversal of the renewable liquid energy program (The USA, which burns half it’s corn crop in internal combustion engines, could do a little rethinking along those lines, too).

    Obviously a lot of hard, serious thinking needs to be done if we’re to find a lasting path out of this madness.

  8. gary jackman says

    “Nobody can give freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man you take it.” Malcolm X.

  9. W. R. Flynn says

    I’ve been pondering your Malcolm X quote for a few days and have come to the conclusion that it hits the nail on the head perfectly. The beasts running the palm oil businesses and setting these crazy renewable biofuel mandates, not only in the EU but in North America, too, won’t stop enriching themselves and pushing this planet destroying insanity unless they’re forced to stop.

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