Environmental Inaction

An Invisible Dichotomy

Million-coloured temples and a sky crowded with buildings and clouds, tiny planet of rooftop garden, hunched silhouette featuring watering can. Vietnam has its mornings like its streets, all too fast and bright, crowded together in a blur of unidentified movement. But the grey clouds which smudge the sharp horizon into homogeneity are more sinister than a monsoon.

I am Australian, so when I speak about The West I speak about my country’s brash opinions. Australia is a rich country. We live happy lives. Easy lives. Our land bursts effortlessly with leafy green suburbs and private education, high quality public health services and a veritable buffet of social welfare schemes. But for a the last few years, Australia has been the world’s largest per capita emitter. Further, it would seem the war our two-term right-wing government has fought against an emissions reduction scheme will continue.

At a lecture from an economist in Ho Chi Minh City I ask what Vietnam thinks of environmental degradation. I frame it around the argument I have so often heard, that the West had their time in the sun (or the gloomy smog as it may be) and that now it is our moral duty to allow Asia the same concession. The lecturer pauses, looks down with a delicate, pained smile, the kind I imagine most affable economists must have. “When our people can eat, when they are in jobs and off the street, then we will think about the environment.”

This is nothing especially astute or original, but it is infused with a terrifying hopelessness, an inescapable determinism. Outside the window, the city hums with life, with development, with grey and dark and humanitarian emissions.

Tragically, it is Vietnam’s reliance on low-skill employment by multinational corporations that has proved the most self-destructive. The vast majority of foreign investment is directed into industries which consume colossal amounts of energy, skyrocketing Vietnam’s emissions as demand for coal power grows. Chinese investment into coal-fired power plants is already an issue looming large in the policy debate as 2017 begins. Coinciding with the emergence of this issue is the recent release of a Harvard study predicting thousands of deaths caused by pollution throughout South-East Asia in the next decade, the second highest number of which, it revealed, would be in Vietnam.

In 2016, the Taiwanese-owned Formosa steel mill released massive amounts of toxic waste into Vietnamese waterways, subsidiaries of which fuel much of South-East Asian agriculture. The spills killed many tonnes of marine life and debilitated fishing and tourism industries across four different provinces. At its initial proposal, Formosa’s $10.6bn steel complex seemed greatly beneficial to Vietnam. It was one of the country’s largest inflows of foreign investment. Environmental damage, however, is not isolated to Formosa. Since this catastrophe, Chinese firms have been accused of similar instances of damage. In fact 60% of Vietnamese environmental standards breaches in 2016 were by foreign corporations. While at the time of the Formosa disaster deputy minister of planning and investment Dang Huy Dong said that Vietnam would “not trade the environment for foreign direct investment” it is difficult to see an escape which doesn’t take with it the livelihoods of millions of Vietnamese.

This distinct kind of environmental crisis is one without an inherently ‘environmental’ solution. Any national pivot towards renewable energy would be almost redundant, as so much of the nation’s environmental action rests in the hands of massive multinationals, whose will for efficiency puts them at odds with any sustainable development goals. Furthermore, the reliance of the economy on foreign investment means the enforcement of regulatory standards upon these MNCs is almost impossible. Trapped at the bottom of the world economy, lacking global power or environmental sovereignty, countries like Vietnam become the summit scapegoats for larger, richer polluters like Australia. To demand similar reductions by developing nations without economic support greatly simplifies the impossibly complex economic obstacles they must overcome.

In Australia we have choices. We can accept plans to reduce economic growth by placing a price on carbon. We can make efforts to build a slower, sustainably-powered economy. We can accept foreign investment on primarily ecological grounds. And not one of these choices will not cost us as much as it would cost a developing country. Australia and Vietnam’s inactions are incomparable because the sacrifices are impossibly different. In The West where everything is an affordable luxury, it is easy to forget in some places, each choice is a catch-22.

In Vietnam, a man has a rooftop garden across from our hotel. His body is old and shaped like a gentle wave. His little plants are beautiful, growing together in a web of green and green and green. A thin stream of water catches the sun, and shimmers for a moment. The sky is so grey, cranes like ancient creaking trees, giant buildings which eat up the light in their million blue-silver windows. A long, long way away, we keep our air conditioners on 16, we dig up another tonne of coal, we make another pure sky grey. With a nonchalant decision, we release another hundred metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To prevent this in Australia would cost dollars. In Vietnam, the currency is lives.