Environmental Movements and Politics of the Asian Anthropocene is a collection of eleven academic essays, by multiple scholars, edited by Paul Jobin, Ming-sho Ho, and Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, that focus on the dynamic interplay between political systems and environmental movements in seven of the ten ASEAN regional economies, plus Taiwan and Hong Kong, over the past two decades.
The editors set the stage with an opening essay. They define the term Anthropocene as signifying the era (beginning at the time of the Industrial Revolution and continuing to the present) when anthropic (human) actions set in motion a whole host of mostly negative planetary changes, including global warming, loss of biodiversity, and the threat of mass extinction. Reprising a similar compilation published two decades earlier, the editors note this collection reveals environmental destruction on “a scale that was unknown, indeed unimaginable some twenty years ago.”
The editors also note this book addresses a gap in the literature of the Anthropocene, adding Asian voices where there previously have been few. This is in spite of the fact that, as the editors define it, Asia contains four of the top ten most vulnerable countries to climate change. These are the Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam. Asia is also the largest regional greenhouse gas emitter (at 40% of the world’s total in 2015, with 89% of that coming from China, India, and Indonesia).
Comprised of country studies, the book resists the idea of sweeping, global solutions. It is interesting for anyone who wants to know more about the struggle for environmental justice in the regions studied, and it gives the reader a sense of the evolution or devolution of the specific political environments. Opportunities and limitations are often defined by political regimes, and Paul Jobin observes that democracy is clearly compatible with concern for the environment. The economies studied rank from freest—Taiwan—to least free—Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam—with Indonesia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia in the middle, when scored by Jobin using systems developed by Freedom House, the Economist, and V-Dem.
Environmental justice is probably harder to come by these days, as the earth’s resources become scarcer and its population swells. Perhaps not coincidentally, Taiwan is the country where environmental lawsuits have had the most success being heard, including multiple lawsuits against Formosa Plastics, a serial corporate offender. Although China is not given an essay of its own, its commercial interests extend into many of the countries studied.
Despite environmental challenges being country-specific, there are some commonalities, including editors’ observation that national governments “are likely to push unsustainable business as usual.” Indeed, the studies of Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Cambodia all chronicle socio-political movements that arose to combat profit-hungry government sanctioned resource extraction, such as mining, timbering, or hydro-electric damming. All too often, governments choose profits over people. As Stephan Ortmann recounts, in “Environmental Movements in Vietnam Under One Party Rule”, popular opposition was not enough to sway the government to block a deal for a controversial bauxite mine in 2009, when Chinese-owned Chinalco dangled the promise of US$15 billion in investments by 2025 for the right to open it.
One of the book’s most edifying (and bleaker) essays is James WY Wang’s “Cambodian Neopatrimonial State, Chinese Investments, and Anti-dam Movements”. Wang argues that the influence of China in Cambodia has been one of natural resource exploitation in collusion with Cambodia’s ruling elite. The single party regime under Hun Sen brooks little opposition and numerous community protests against human rights violations and destruction of livelihoods have been met with “lethal threats”. In Wang’s words, “state patronage based on land concessions and a brutal exploitation of natural resources remains the state’s largest political asset.” Wang asserts this client relationship with Cambodia has served China well, not only giving it access to resources it needs (like timber and hydroelectric power) but allowing it to buy influence inside ASEAN and military access to mainland Southeast Asia. Sweetheart deals undermine transparency and good governance, and each country turns a blind eye to the other’s human rights violations. Wang uses the example of the forced repatriation of 20 Uighurs to China from Cambodia on the eve of the signing of a US$1.2 billion soft loan accord to illustrate this point.
Most of the essays reveal varying degrees of government suppression and hostility in response to environmental demonstrations. In “State, NGOs and Villagers: How the Thai Environmental Movement Fell Silent”, Jakkrit Sangkhamanee describes how Thai NGOs “have become a group of organizations that strengthened and allied with the government in exchange for their own survival without contemplating the future of Thai society.” In “The Post-politics of Environmental Engagement in Singapore”, Harvey Neo argues that environmental movements have been “co-opted, discredited … or ignored” in what he characterizes as “neo-liberal” Singapore, where the government derives legitimacy from continued economic progress and development.
Other essays, including “Environmental Activism in Malaysia”, by Fadzilah Majid Cooke and Andnan A Hezri, and “Environmental NGOs in “Post-New Order” Indonesia” by Suharko Suharko explore the idea that, in addition to being a way for indigenous peoples to react to loss of land rights, environmentalism has been a vehicle for democratization and state accountability. James K Wong and Alvin Y So’s “Environmental Movements in Post-handover Hong Kong” has passed its “sell by” date. Sadly, their argument that “radical environmentalism”, by linking arms with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, can affect structural and institutional change, has, at least for the near term, been the wrong strategy.