Opinion: Environmental justice is social justice

In Thailand, 58,903 people die from air pollution each year, according to a report by WHO.

It is the result of social injustices, deeply interconnected and rooted from the profiteering of a few powerful people, and something that we can no longer allow to persist.

I’m no scientist to say what the Air Quality Index of our atmosphere is this week, but when you can’t see through the air because of smog then it isn’t ideal for breathing.

I don’t have to be a doctor to know that clean air shouldn’t smell like burnt leaves, exhaust fumes and gasoline. I also don’t have to be a political analyst to understand that there is something wrong in a society and a planet where people can’t breathe, whether it’s through suffocation by coal power plant fumes or systematic abuses by state authorities.

Yet the state tries to hide its crimes and collusion’s and cast aside those who protest like many of Thailand’s slain activists who fought against coal giants and kingpins of environmental destruction and human exploitation.

In Thailand and countries still in need of real development, construction workers have little in common with the people who live in the condominiums they build, and rice farmers have less to eat than the people whose food they grow. In the same way, disadvantaged communities, where coal mines and hydropower dams are built, end up with barely, if any, of the electricity that pollutes their land and water.

This is where “intersectionality” comes in: each category of class, gender, race and social group you belong to puts you in a place of more or less privilege. There are clear examples of this in our recent history.

What we Bangkokians use to light our homes at day and night, darken the lives of those where the energy comes from.

In 2011, it was estimated that air pollution emissions from Thailand’s coal-fired power plants were responsible for about 1,550 premature deaths. You’ll never see such projects built near a billionaires’ beach resort, but a coal plant near villagers’ homes in Krabi? Fine.

Now this is a problem which neither you or I can solve by flicking off a switch. After all, where our country digs its power is up to the decision-making of politicians and fuel tycoons who make fortunes off of power generation concessions.

When the most disastrous floods hit in 2011, downstream provinces were drowned to keep Bangkok dry at the expense of its surrounding areas, highlighting Thailand’s urban-rural divide.

Women tend to be more affected by climate change—in addition to their duty in caring for the children and elderly, doing household chores, they are also burdened with farming and other side jobs, while given less financial freedom and decision-making power than their husbands.

Indigenous people, though they’ve long harmoniously co-existed with nature, will be on the frontlines of extreme weather, remaining unrecognized, overlooked and silenced as magnates encroach upon tribal lands to declare Protected Areas and tear down sacred forests for monoculture plantations.

Just like how privilege played out during COVID-19 for the poor and the wealthy, it will too as climate change exacerbates. As natural disasters become more frequent, those who take the first and hardest hit won’t be cement business owners or us Bangkokians who profusely emit carbon emissions into the air—it’ll be those who did nothing but sleep in the heat at night, under a mosquito net with the only fan they own.

As long as Foodland is still open 24/7, we’ll never suffer as much as the farmers who’ll have to decide whether their dying crops this season will pay their debt or feed themselves. When temperatures rise along with sea levels, unlike many of us, vulnerable communities in Samut Prakan can’t afford to take a flight to summer ski in the Alps or move to Vancouver where all the cousins are attending UBC.

There’s a reason environmentalists tend to demand a “just transition” to renewable energy and not just transition. Should our governments decide to prioritize environmental health by putting an end to all fossil fuel extraction, people will lose jobs—but an equitable transition is key to ensuring that these people have future employment. If we care to take social justice seriously, we’ll also need to address environmental justice and vice versa.

For a very long time, with or without a knowledge, many of us have been part of a system that chokes people whose names we’ve never heard of and whose lives we’ve never cared for. Perhaps you’ve hopped on to the online hashtags or taken a knee to show solidarity, but now it’s time to take a step back to acknowledge what your own footprint is leaving behind and how you can change its course. You cannot be a classist environmental advocate and you cannot be an environmentally-destructive social activist–society and nature go hand in hand and we can and need to build a new kind of home where we can all breathe regardless of who we are or where we come from.

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