Learning Curves


Last spring I set out for Big Bend—my first camping trip in a National Park in the United States. Prior to this trip, my “wilderness†experiences had largely been confined to the almost entirely unregulated forests and mountains of South and Southeast Asia. As a result, I was astonished by the degree of organization and control operating within Big Bend’s vast boundaries. Astonished and somewhat annoyed. Where was the “wilderness†in a place where every step had been licensed and logged at Headquarters before we took off? Who ever heard of an adventure with maps indicating a numbered campsite that came complete with a bear-box? After my initial letdown, I realized that I was riding my own version of what James David Fahn identifies in an important new book, A Land on Fire, as the environmental Kuznets curve.

Fahn, who worked nearly a decade as environmental editor for The Nation, one of Bangkok’s two English-language daily papers, explains the Kuznets curve as economist-speak for the typical pattern of resource abuse exhibited during a country’s industrialization process. Extreme environmental degradation occurs during the initial stages of industrialization, followed by a plateau associated with a certain level of economic/political development and subsequent attempts to restore pre-industrial conditions. The way the process is currently playing out in Southeast Asia, and why we need to pay attention to it is the subject of A Land on Fire, his first book, and the result of years of investigative reporting.

In the United States (and the rest of the developed world), we reached the “green side†of the Kuznets curve before economists had christened the processes of industrialization with names and theories. Now it’s our turn to watch (and more often than not, try to impose our standards on) other countries balancing industrialization and resource preservation in the globalized context of the 21st century. Like parents trying to prevent children from repeating their own mistakes, we cry in horror as the developing world (also referred to as the global South) logs its forests, poaches its wildlife, pollutes its air and water, and generally adopts a laissez- faire attitude toward its resources. For all manner of legitimate and selfish reasons, this paternalistic metaphor is not so far from the actual attitude of many in the global North—conservationists and developers alike. Nevertheless, a bit of concerned panic is not out of order in light of Fahn’s introductory comment: “Asia is home to 60 percent of the world’s population… the future of the world’s environment will depend on how it develops.â€

Focusing on Thailand and the environmental crisis following its industrialization—a process touted in international development circles as “a great success storyâ€â€”Fahn provides us with a readable and intelligent compilation of fact-filled journalism, personal anecdote, and philosophical inquiry that explores the question: How is Asia’s environmental movement developing? He expertly guides us through the root causes and consequences of Thailand’s panoply of environmental concerns. He starts small, detailing localized problems such as “The Big Mango’s†(Bangkok) infamous traffic, the impact of tourism on once-pristine islands, and National Park (mis)management, providing eyewitness accounts of the specifics. Then he zooms out, reporting on the big ticket items of logging, dam-building, the establishment of regional gas pipelines, and the dumping of toxic waste, offering lessons to be learned—both regionally and even for the global South as a whole—from how Thailand has handled these issues.

Whether he’s talking about golf courses as an elitist symbol of environmental disregard, or the philosophical and political implications of resettling ethnic minority tribes from protected areas, Fahn considers both fact and opinion in the light of cultural values and their impact on environmental thinking and choices. That a society’s relationship to nature is as culturally determined as are its gender dynamics or sense of personal space is no big surprise. Nor is the concept that pollution is oblivious to political boundaries. What is unique is Fahn’s emphasis on the link between culture and how it influences the management and politics of the global environment.

An example is the way the environmental movement itself has developed in Thailand. Fahn argues that a culture’s attitude toward nature is fundamental to how that same culture will practice resource conservation. In a brief summary, he describes the Thai cultural attitude toward nature as deeply influenced by two things: a spirituality based in reverence for nature, and a history (to the present) of people living in forests. On the spiritual side, he notes that Buddhism is a religion that grew “out of the forest,†and its preaching of reverence for all life—however much it may be violated in practice—is a deeply ingrained part of the Thai psyche. Going further back in history, he cites the importance of the animist beliefs that constituted spiritual life in Thailand (in fact all of Southeast Asia) prior to the introduction of Buddhism. These animist beliefs, which confer a protective spirit to all things, sentient or not, were woven into Thai Buddhism, and are still evident in spirit houses, protective talismans, etc. Layered onto this spiritual foundation of the Thai cultural attitude toward the natural world is the fact that a significant portion of the population lives in and from the forest (“from 5 to 10 million people… depending on who’s countingâ€).

In contrast, Fahn describes the American attitude toward nature as one that in theory is abstract and romantic, and in practice is physically remote and separate. He explains the American attitude toward “wilderness†(a concept for which Thai language does not have a word) as a New World feature which arose out of a luxurious abundance of space, becoming a point of pride that distinguished this land from its European antecedents. This abundance and its “purity†(i.e., lack of human presence—a concept that requires Native Americans to be considered part of the wilderness, if they are considered at all) eventually led to the American innovation of establishing the sacrosanct spaces of national parks. Fahn takes the time to explain these contrasting attitudes so that we can better understand how Thailand’s environmental movement has developed thus far, and where it may be headed. It is in this context that the dominant American model for conservation—putting a fence around a forest and saying “keep outâ€â€”can be understood as an extremely contentious act in Thailand, where environmental consciousness has arisen out of cultural attitudes based on human integration (vs. separation) with nature. But the Thai movement itself is also deeply divided. A minority preach complete conservation of “wilderness,†for which they are accused of being “foreign and imperialist†by a majority that seeks solutions that above all include human presence.

This divide is most acute in what Fahn terms the “man and forest debate,†the fight in Thailand (and much of the global South) over whether environmental integrity can be maintained while allowing longtime forest dwellers to live in and utilize forest resources. The specifics of this debate are particularly interesting because the discourse is so different from what we are familiar with in the United States or the global North. Fahn identifies the two sides as the preservationists (those supporting “fenced off†models of conservation) and the environmental democracy movement (those who are as concerned with human rights and democracy as they are with environmental protection). The latter group is by far the more popular, composed of various middle class NGOs linked to grassroots organizations of farmers and fishermen. The preservationists tend to be exclusively middle class, and more commonly made up of ecologists, wildlife experts, and scientists whose priority is the “welfare of watershed forests and their non-human inhabitants.†To their credit, the preservationists question whether continued human forest dwelling is sustainable because it is based on a lifestyle—lack of access to technology and the cash economy—that is disappearing, raising thorny issues about development and who gets to decide who has access to which resources.

Fahn provides a fascinating account of the increasingly ideological tenor of the debate between these groups, the role of Thailand’s notoriously corrupt Royal Forest Department (government manager of all forests and protected areas), and the way that control over resources is as much about who uses them as it is about how they are used. Fahn points out that the preservationists’ goal of “creating wilderness in a democracy is awkward.†And so it is. And yet whether Thailand’s environmental movement succeeds in protecting its forests and watersheds, the debate it inspires in this relatively young democracy has become an important forum for voicing political issues about access to resources. The public nature of the environmental debate has become a “legitimized arena of resistance†for the rural poor. Thus far it has also been the most effective means of controlling the corrupt exploitation of resources by the wealthy and politically connected few.

As we all know, this debate is not exclusive to the developing world. We’ve also experienced occupational and class-based environmental controversy (e.g., the spotted owls vs. the loggers in the Pacific Northwest, or the rise of the environmental justice movement which takes up green causes on behalf of minorities and the poor). However, as Fahn blankly states, “the difference in the South is that there are a lot more poor people.†Thus the environmental democracy movement represents the “mainstream greens†in Thailand, and it is making a huge case for an entirely different type of environmentalism from what we in the North are accustomed to. The man vs. forest debate, therefore, represents a fundamental environmental issue in the global South, one whose significance and potential impact on the world’s remaining forests, is little understood or even acknowledged (spotted owls aside) in the North. As Fahn himself says: It is a mighty battle over control of valuable resources, a contest laced with ethnic tensions, hidden financial motives, and differing spiritual beliefs. And it raises some broader philosophical points: Where do people see themselves in relation to nature? Does man belong in the forest, or should he be kept separate? To what extent is development a necessity and at what point does further growth become a luxury? Does everyone have a right to the same level of development, or does it depend on where you live? And finally, who decides the answer to these questions? The philosophical questions he raises can just as easily be applied to global battles over how developing nations manage their environmental priorities, and the degree to which the developed world will be able to influence that process.

One of the most appealing aspects of A Land on Fire is the author’s lack of an agenda. Fahn refuses to fall in with either side of a raging ideological debate. Instead, he leaves the reader constructively perplexed, musing about the full spectrum of concerns facing the global environment, from solutions resulting in the hyper-cultivated American “wilderness†I experienced in Big Bend to the much more tangled thicket that represents the ecological future of the global South. As he points out in a personal note, “the urge to keep some sanctuaries as free as possible from human interference may not solely be an American dream. Rather, it is a post-industrial dream.â€

Let’s hope that informed and thoughtful analyses such as this will help keep the poles of ideological and political debate from turning the reality of a healthy global environment into a vaguely remembered dream.

Lee Middleton worked over a year in Thailand as a wildlife researcher for a U.S.-based conservation organization. She is finishing an M.A. in Creative Writing at UT-Austin.