Helen Harper


I live in Malaysia, a beautiful, friendly tropical country. For most people that probably conjures up images of blue skies, swaying palm trees and sunny weather. Most of the time that’s true. Kuala Lumpur, even as a busy, traffic-congested capital city is surprisingly green. There are a lot of trees. Malaysia itself is one of those happily located places in the world, much like the UK in fact, which manages to escape most of nature’s ravages. There aren’t earthquakes or typhoons or active volcanoes to worry about. When the tragic and devastating tsunami of 2004 struck, it would be fair to say that Malaysia got off lightly. Thailand to the north had over 5000 deaths. Indonesia to the south had a staggering 130,000. Malaysia’s total was 68. The island of Sumatra essentially shielded Malaysia’s coasts from the worst. Unfortunately, there’s no protection from the ravages of man.


Since around the start of July, many South-East Asian countries have been affected by air pollution – or haze – that’s sweeping in from Indonesia as a result of slash and burn farming practices. Sometimes, there will be a thunderstorm or two and the skies clear for a few days. Most of the time, Kuala Lumpur is shrouded in smog. On the worst days, when I wake up, I taste the burning in my mouth. Friends’ Facebook posts are littered with ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of views from their apartments and houses. The difference is staggering. Sporting events at every level have being cancelled. This week alone schools were ordered to be closed from Monday to Thursday because the API (Air Pollution Index) levels were simply too high to be deemed safe for children. That is usually when the numbers reach above 200 or ‘very unhealthy’. Imagine what it must be like in Indonesia. On October 2nd, Palangkaraya hit 1,986.


The situation has been exacerbated this by year by the El Nino effect. There are numerous suggestions and theories about when it will all end. Some say next month. Some say it will go on until March. There have to be considerably grave concerns about the long term effect on the health of millions and millions of people, not to mention the planet. I remember years ago sitting in lesson after lesson where the dangers of the hole in the ozone layer were spelled out and using CFC gases or driving a car without a catalytic converter was potentially going to destroy the world. When I look out my window, it seems like we’ve learned nothing though. It’s not just here – think about Volkswagen.


It’s easy to point the finger and blame others for what’s happening, but maybe we’re all culpable. We all demand cheap products. We all could do more to recycle or cut down on our carbon footprints. I had a long Skype chat with a good friend today who’s vegan and he was telling me about how difficult veganism can be nowadays. You’d think it would be easier as it’s grown in popularity. Instead, companies all around the world have jumped in and worked out ways to label their products as vegan. Yes, they are vegan but very often they’re not ethically sourced or produced either. They might not be lying per se but their products still also seem to go against almost every tenet of veganism.


I don’t have a solution to any of this. Or even a conclusion because right now it doesn’t appear that there ever will be one. There is a quotation that I’ve found, however, by Terry Swearingen. I don’t know who he (or she) is or if he even really said it, but it seems apt: “We are living on the planet as if we have another one to go to.”

Photo by thienzieyung

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