This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 12 - October 18, 2015.
IF we should never let a good crisis go to waste, as the inimitable Winston Churchill had suggested, it is pertinent to ask what we should do differently in the wake of the haze that is choking the region.
An obvious focal point is the failed governance in Indonesia, both in its provinces and central government, that allows such horrific destruction to take place without effective restraint.
It is revealing that although Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has given personal attention to the issue, the fires have got worse, indicating that a combination of complex problems prevents obvious solutions from working.
Reports on the situation indicate that it is often difficult to pinpoint the culprits but it would be misleading to suggest that the problem could be solved if only a real-life Hercule Poirot would put his mind to the task.
One vital clue is that it costs US$7 a hectare to clear land by burning versus US$150 for mechanised clearing, as Henry Purnomo, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research, is quoted as saying in a recent article in Forbes.
This points to the fact that the problem involves a range of actors that include palm oil companies, paper and pulp firms, contractors for plantations, smallholders and local cultivators. The crux, apparently, lies in the practice of slash-and-burn cultivation.
Of course, no wrongdoing should be imputed to any quarter without concrete proof but there is no mistaking the fact that the forest fires have escalated beyond control.
To get a handle on the issue, the economic argument for burning must be balanced against an array of attendant factors. How effective, for example, are the plantations in executing their corporate responsibility to prevent land clearing from endangering public health and compromising ecological integrity?
For another matter, are smallholders and local cultivators included in the collective responsibility for natural resource management?
Another burning issue, pardon the pun, is whether local and national governments are able to fulfil the core function of protecting the public interest in an environment that is symptomatic of endemic corruption, where the enforcement machinery is seriously under-resourced and society is driven by the survival instinct.
An additional dimension of the haze phenomenon is its international scale.
Unfortunately for the hapless millions of victims in several Southeast Asian countries, the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution that was signed by all 10 member countries of the grouping in 2002 has provided no relief from the suffocating smoke that continues to shroud the region during the planting season every year.
To put it plainly, despite the periodic publicity given to the Asean leaders’ efforts to jointly address the haze problem, the agreement provides embarrassing proof of the member nations’ inability to intervene as a well-coordinated entity to solve an acute and longstanding crisis.
Although Malaysia and Singapore have been quick to offer their assistance to Indonesia on a bilateral basis, it was only last Thursday that Jokowi announced that Indonesia had asked several countries, including China, Singapore, Russia and Japan, for help to put out fires, citing the need for much larger air-tankers than they had to carry out water bombing. Jakarta was also in talks with Australia and Malaysia on how they might help, Reuters reported.
The governments of the affected countries certainly have their work cut out for them to search for an effective mechanism to stop this scourge at its source.
Even the emergency response apparatus of the affected countries clearly needs a radical makeover to cope with the health, environmental and economic crises that have been triggered by the disaster.
Agricultural and forestry management practices must also be turned on their heads in order to end this recurring fiasco.
It is important therefore to realise that there is much more than meets the eye in the current crisis.
Most importantly, however, we must pause to consider what is fundamentally wrong with our economic paradigm that it is driving us to the utter destruction of the world as we know it.
At the root of it all, we must recognise that it is the relentless pursuit of economic growth that has set us on the path to ecological collapse and economic doom.
In less desperate conditions, it is normal to believe that the path of rapid development is the only desirable road for a modern economy to take. Yet, the fatal flaw in this vision of infinite growth is only too clear when it becomes the all-consuming monster that undermines the basis of life on earth.
Unfortunately, it takes a crisis like the current environmental calamity that has befallen us to make us receptive to the notion that any activity, including economic development, that loses sight of the human perspective has the tendency to go the way of a runaway engine and bring us all to grief.
In the end, we must wake up to the fact that the wildfires that are raging uncontrollably in the forests will only be controlled when we stop fanning the desire for more and more consumption in our hearts.
That done, we can learn once again to live in harmony with nature and enjoy its bounty without destroying it.
R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge