A Land on Fire

(image from barnesandnoble.com)

With its large industrial sector and growing urban middle-class, Thailand has been hailed as one of the development successes of Southeast Asia. As you can see from this graph, its GDP has increased by a factor of 8 over the past half-century.

(data from Wolfram Alpha)

But this growth has not been without its costs. James David Fahn’s A Land On Fire: The Environmental Consequences of the Southeast Asian Boom is a partial account of the environmental costs entailed by Thailand’s rapid industrialization, drawn from Fahn’s reporting with The Nation, a Bangkok-based newspaper.

From dying coral to disappearing mangroves, mercury contamination to carbon emissions, Fahn provides vivid descriptions of a multitude of environmental dangers and crises. A Land On Fire is a great read, punctuated as it is by first-person stories the authors quest for “the scoop” in the midst of military coups, border conflicts with Burma and refugee crises. I certainly recommend it.

But Fahn does more than provide tales of journalistic derring-do. The book uses the individual environmental issues to ask a few fundamental questions about the development process: How can we balance economic growth with resource conservation? How can we achieve development that is both sustainable and equitable? What is the balance between national sovereignty and environmental protection when certain resources and pollutants cross national boundaries? These are questions that the emerging economies have to ask as they propel themselves onto the global economic stage.

Fahn repeatedly refers to what is called the “Environmental Kuznets Curve” as he explores the environmental consequences of development.

According to the theory depicted by the Kuznets curve, the early stages of economic growth are nearly always associated with increasing environmental degradation, but once per capita income reaches a certain level societies begin demanding cleaner technology and holding industry more accountable for pollution.

Graphs like the one above make this process seem inevitable, but Fahn argues that it is possible–at least in theory–to plow a shortcut through the Kuznets Curve by using technology already developed in wealthier economies to prevent pollution and degradation in the emerging economies. However, this requires the transfer of expensive technology, which incurs costs that emerging industries may not be willing to pay. Also, in countries without democratic institutions or lively civil societies the demand for cleaner and more efficient technology may not be heard.

The upshot of this is that emerging nations like Thailand face a host of challenges as they try to conserve resources, clean up pollution and engage regionally to prevent cross-border damage. The picture Fahn paints is one of mixed success. Thailand is particularly hampered by political corruption, which prevents civil society groups from effectively lobbying for environmental protection.

This difficulty is vividly illustrated by the debate over deforestation, where entrenched political elites have historically encouraged unsustainable clear-cutting by well-connected timber firms. Now as environmental lobbies are finding their voice indiginous peoples living in protected forest areas are caught between preservationist groups on the one hand–who would rather move people out of the forest entirely–and timber firms on the other–who have historically destroyed local livelihoods by destroying forests. It is a difficult dilemma where the most powerless people have the most to lose, and corruption tends to ensure that the powerful get their way.

Environmental degradation and deforestation are major themes here, so I’m sure I’ll be reading and thinking more about these issues during my time in Thailand. Stay tuned!

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