Editorial: We need anti-pollution warriors, are you up for the task?

Chiang Mai Citylife’s editor pleads the public to get involved in the anti-pollution fight

By | Fri 29 Jan 2021

Some of you may know that I have been on the peripheries of the anti-air-pollution efforts for what must be nearly two decades now, since the publication of my laughably hopeful article, “Solution to Pollution” in 2002. (And do forgive me for repeating myself for the sake of those who may be new to this issue and to Chiang Mai).

Over the years I have covered hundreds of pollution-related stories and have felt gratified at seeing more and more people waking up to the awareness of this insidious and invisible danger, while also watching with ever-increasing concern as the crisis worsens annually. It all came to a head for me in March 2018 when Citylife, frustrated at the government’s prevarication over this noxious pall that descends annually, decided to organise a rally to raise awareness. Starting by writing a letter to the governor, the mayor and the president of the PAO, where, amongst other pleas, we asked, “For more urgency in finding solutions so that citizens can protect themselves appropriately from the many health dangers we face due to this problem…We humbly request that the government provides accurate information regarding the hazards of haze and air pollution on public health, especially children and the elderly while also educating those on effective dust masks that protect at the level of PM 2.5.”

Following a pretty clear threat by the then-governor Pawin Chamniprasert to myself, when he warned that our rally ‘may’ be perceived by ‘some people’ as being critical of the government causing them to potentially become violent towards me, I was forced to cancel the rally. What followed was the most harrowing week of my life as the governor announced that he was to press charges against me, charges which could see me in jail for up to 15 years. Thankfully I contacted all my media friends I had known over the decades and with Reuters, BBC, CNN, Washington Times, AP and about 80 other media outlets from Germany to Taiwan, Pakistan to Russia covering my imminent arrest, the governor backed off. It wasn’t long before many of the requests made in the letter were realised, and while gratifying, it was only one tiny battle won in this existential war we are fighting.

Following the drama, I retreated somewhat to lick my wounds, shaken to the core by the threat of 15 years in jail. In the ensuing years, I have not been active in the anti-pollution fight outside of my regular purview of interviewing those who are and informing you, my readers.

And so it was with some reluctance that I joined yesterday’s meeting of the public relations sub-committee of the Breathe Council. Having known many members of Breathe Council, all of whom are passionate volunteers who have taken up the mantle and Herculean task of fighting for clean air for us all, I know that these people have worked hard and dedicated so much of their time and expertise to this cause which should unite us all. However, I’ve also seen the council stumbling and bumbling since its inception, and launch at our Citylife Garden Fair in late 2019. The council has, to date, received 28 million baht in donations and fundraising events, of which it has spent 14 million. There has been, and I admit that I am one of the voices, some criticism of the allocation of the budget, as it appears to have been rather haphazardly spent on a variety of projects and activities from tree planting to donations to families of firefighting victims. Not that anyone is being accused of anything nefarious, but my concern is that the council appears, at this time, to be project and activities-based, rather than having any clear

strategy to solve the vast and complex problems. Spending a million here and a hundred thousand there on this and that project is not going to win the war. I would personally prefer they focus on the big picture.

Chiang Mai has so many experts in a variety of fields, what with all of our universities and colleges, so lack of data is in no way a problem. While every researcher agrees that we are in a crisis and that the pollution is going to have devastating long-term effect on health and the economy, it is frustrating to see a lack of consensus on matters of priorities or in furthering agendas.

Yesterday’s meeting didn’t allay my fears and you can read all about my concerns in this report of the meeting. Yet I will gladly say that I support the council. Because, flawed and all, they are the only group which has the capacity and the capability to effect change. Sure, there are some great people doing marvellous things for the collective and greater good: from Michael Shafer’s pioneering clean fuel initiatives at Warm Heart Foundation to Ben Svasti’s corralling of the Consular Corps to join him in his Blue Sky Project which helps manage and support firefighting efforts; from the lone farang in Lampang risking life and lungs to fight forest fires to the bunch of school alums who came together to carve out a green space in the heart of the city. There are individuals out there who have gone, and continue to go, above and beyond for us and our future generations. But if we are still talking about a handful, even a dozen or so, groups and initiatives, then we may as well get used to this masked life. A few drops of action aren’t going to wash away the pollution. What we need is a deluge.

It is clear that this issue isn’t going to be solved anytime soon and with any quick solutions. So I urge you to step up. Yes, you. And you…Yup, you too.

Organise a community group to plant trees in your neighbourhood. Tell your friends to reduce their use of private vehicles and perhaps walk or cycle more. Form a think tank to come up with ideas to support the Breathe Council. Inform authorities when you see burning (its ok to be a snitch on this one). Analyse your own habits and see what you can change to benefit the environment. Research, read and learn about this issue so that you may be informed enough to perhaps evangelise the agenda. Discuss, talk, debate and spread concerns and ideas. Write letters to newspapers, to government officials, to consulates and embassies. Just do something. I know it is frustrating, but if we all simply sit behind our keyboards in our sealed rooms breathing purified air and complaining then nothing is going to change.

And whatever you do, please support, not disparage the efforts of those who are actually trying to help. Sure, critique them, spotlight their mistakes and missteps, analyse their efforts, offer ideas and solutions – even your services – I certainly won’t stop doing these things. But unless you are willing to step up and own that you too are complicit, even in the smallest of ways, and do something about it, then just sit back down, keep breathing, and hope that better people than you will save us all.