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