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wednesday 14 october

A Hazy Future

It appears I have arrived a few days too late, at least in Singapore, the haze from fires in Sumatra, west across the Straits of Malacca, have subsided. Well, subsided in no logical sense of the word, but for Singaporeans they can finally unmask their faces, let their kids outdoors and pretend their lives are returning to the utopian normal they have constructed in a sea of less affluent neighbors.

A Singaporean friend living in the US linked me up with Jo, a childhood friend of her’s, here in Singapore. He offered to spend part of my layover day with me. Jo works with Medicines Sans Frontiers as well as a start up of his own called Engineers Without Borders. Picking me up at the airport he initially apologized, happily, for the haze not being as visually dramatic as it had been just a week earlier. He was happy to exchange my disappointment for being able to release his two kids from apartment bound quarantine. Just a few days ago the air quality, or lack there of, was flirting with the “hazardous” level and too big a risk for his three and five year old to venture outside. The kids had been apartment-bound for a couple weeks.  Instead we spent the day talking about haze, Indonesian indifference to their suffering, and what this trend of seasonal haze might portend for this future, and for Africa, where palm oil and deforestation (the principal perpetrators of the hazy mess) are setting up shop.

The great irony of course is that the haze Singapore, and southern peninsular Malaysia, have been engulf in is in part of their own making. Many of the companies implicated in the fires burning in Sumatra (and Kalimantan) have their corporate, and investment bank, headquarters in the lofty glass towers currently disappearing in the Singapore haze. It’s ironic because politicos in Jakarta are feeling the ethical-heat of the haze problem, yet their city is nowhere near the haze drift path.

Despite clearing, the sun has never fully appeared today. It has flirted, brightening hazy patches of an ashy white sky with a pale ball, yet remained recluse. It reminds me of my wintry Beijing days when the sun would ooze through an entire day of grey-goo, never fully appearing — for days on end. Beijingers have accepted this as some state of normalcy. Are Singaporeans edging towards the same?

In a strangely related comment, Jo mentioned his kids not seeing the stars — not from haze but light. Singapore fills the night sky with its own light. As we walked through the giant botanical garden opposite the financial center of Singapore, I felt, once again,  like I was in the future utopia-city we all claim were uncertain we want but secretly desire. But I couldn’t help pondering: What do we become when we cannot see the stars and accept not seeing the sun? I wonder?

Before the first fire was lit Indonesia was the acknowledged number three global producer of greenhouse gas emissions (behind the USA and China.) These annual uncontrolled fires aren’t improving their position; bad timing for a nation struggling with maintaining economic growth while dealing with its oversized role in climate change. All this comes, as climate talks are about to open in Paris and Indonesia’s role in those talks was sizable even without the current hazy situation.

Before leaving the states three people I crossed paths with asked where I was off to next, Borneo I replied (Kalimantan would have been far too far off the radar I figured.) Why? They quizzed. The fires, I replied, I’m going to document the fires and the impact on orangutan survival. “What fires” was the response each time. Reminding me the struggling I face with how to tell this story of great ape extinction. It includes these fires. And like these fires it seems too far away for concern, yet it (via palm oil, one of the principal drivers behind these fires) is as close as a candy bar, carton of milk, and bar of soap. The plantation haze drifts over Singapore, the products drift all around the world.

Jo dropped me at the airport, I’m off for the hazeless skies of Jakarta, and then hazier Kalimantan. The sun set before my departure, prematurely. The “clearing” haze in the west was still more than the sun could shine through. Into a darkening featureless grey it disappeared. There will be no stars to replace it either.



2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo

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