Madness & Haze

Haze was an abstract concept to me before I flew into Singapore. To be in a haze referred to a lack of mental clarity. Haze was a temporary condition suffered by mad Westerners before they’d had their morning coffee. It wasn’t an encroaching menace. It wasn’t even tangible. But in Singapore, to be in a haze means it’s September, and the palm oil farms of Sumatra are burning.

Some news agencies roar that the Sumatra fires are the single most damaging environmental attack, regularly inflicted, in the world. Every year Sumatran farmers burn their reaped palm oil fields en mass. The ash and smoke cover the sky over peninsular Malaysia for two months out of the year.

Fire is a mad substitute for harrowing crops. It also works well for clearing virgin forest to sow new crops the following year. So each year more acreage is burned, more soot plumes skyward, and Malaysians all the way to Borneo spend more time choked under a murky pall.

‘Why is this crime against nature allowed to proceed?!’ cries the mawkish environmentalist in me. Fists clenched and eager to poor sand in a bulldozer’s fuel tank, that side of me is still drunk on ideals of Justice and Sustainability. It’s a side of me inflamed with moral righteousness, who still believes there is evil to vanquish. The side of me that shrivels with each new experience. Good riddance.

‘The dictum of capitalism requires it.’ responds the knowing realist. Lazy-eyed and settled in astute acceptance, this side of me understands the mad factors at play. Namely: The complex interplay between the motivation of millions of individuals and the global demand for a product under the economic system of capitalism.

Don’t read me wrong. This side of me is just as determined to strike out egregious environmental damage, but he is not distracted by the wild goose of moral idealism.

The thing is terrible things can happen involving human actions that are devoid of evil motive. There are no villains because there is no evil. There are just societal structures interacting with human natures. And if destruction comes, it will be the failure of legal and economic instruments to accommodate humanity’s needs while conforming to simple, objective principles.

If destruction comes, it will be humanity’s overdose on madness.

It is delusional to expect poor, Indonesian farmers to mitigate an environmental impact at the expense of their already meager quality of life. Especially when it’s an impact that is barely an abstract concept to their uneducated minds. And especially when alternative crop renewal methods are prohibitively expensive.

It is equally delusional to expect the corporate bodies that profit from the palm oil industry to foot the bill for environmental preservation. Not under the banner of capitalism. A company that incurs cost to preserve nature loses competitive advantage and is ground out of business. It is then replaced by a business that rapes the environment. Simple as that.

And finally it is delusional to expect consumers the world over to unite in mutual protest over the destruction wrought. They won’t give up their fancied product simply because it will remain available. The corporate bodies won’t recall it. And the consumers won’t unanimously pay a premium for the salvation of skies and soil as abstract to them as their consumer demand is to the farmers.

It’s not that people are uncaring or unwilling to pay. It’s that living a human life demands so much attention. The infinitesimal moment of selecting a cooking oil doesn’t warrant global awareness. Standing in the grocer aisle with dinner to cook and a hungry family waiting, with limited time and countless chores looming in the fog of ‘later,’ such an act is an automatic grab of lowest cost.

Who considers global impacts in that moment? More importantly, can that moral imperative really be thrust on such a person? I think not. People are not morally bereft for living their lives. Simple as that.

So the farms in Sumatra burn. Madness rages. And the wheels of commerce plod on.

If anyone wants to halt the atrocities committed against nature, do not raise awareness in groups hoping to change their ways. Do not plea with hearts, or educate minds. Instead, confront the mad economic system that always, always subordinates nature to profit. Alter the slope of the terrain. Don’t attempt to make water flow uphill.

In Singapore, for the first time in my life I was engulfed in a serious environmental calamity; the haze. I wasn’t hearing an echo of it; a hollow plea for digital activism to ‘like’ a page on Facebook. I was in it, under it, and would be for two months.

For my part, I didn’t mind it much. In Singapore I was sad, and the atmosphere suited me. My back was still feeble. I missed the friends and lifestyle I’d created in Bali. And I had no great goal to strive toward, to pull me forward and up.

So I dragged along in melancholic torpor. All the more appropriate that the skies reflected my solemnity.

In a previous post, I mentioned meeting two women in Auckland. They offered the contact information of their nephew, Holger, who lives in Singapore. Six months later I was introducing myself to him in his immaculate 13th story apartment. It was my single favorite networking triumph.

Holger was a notable man. He dressed and lived and spoke as immaculately as his apartment. He was kind and intelligent. But my favorite attribute of his was a sort of calm impartiality that spared him from a woeful demeanor. That stems, I think, from a suspicion of his that most everything is madness.

It is really. Mad skyscrapers and mad suits and mad cars and mad televisions. Houses and hairspray and fake food and beautiful clothes and brilliant fantasy and flickering lights and blinking gadgets and the impossible multitude of purposeless products. All madness.

Mad people everywhere chasing mad ghosts. They paint their walls with it, breath it in, eat it for breakfast and dinner. The people choke on madness, rescue themselves with it, then choke again. They lament it and love it and know nothing else. Some poor souls attempt escape, but only discover more madness, and they wonder why it never stops.

Like addicts clutching their stash, the mad throngs defend the madness as inevitable and true. They coo and pet their sweet, treasured mania. With withered fingers and grey skin and sweating brow and glazed eye they slip into numb release while the farms burn behind them.

The madness is so thick it becomes real. You can grab it, scrutinize it, master it. You can build empires out of it. And if you look at it just right you can see the sense within.

I saw the mad sense in the sand. Yes, even the sand is mad. Singapore imports all of its sand, every year, to layer its beaches until the tides sweep it all away again. Tell me this isn’t mad. But it makes sense right?

A billion spent moving sand yes, but a billion and one made for moving it. That’s a gain. It doesn’t matter what damage was done moving it. That is sensical madness.

The madder the people the bigger they get. The men that Holger works with, Chinese executives blind with madness, are unable to see an impossible step even when a blast of light is shined right down on it. Cocooned all their life in madness, they stubbornly insist upon it. They can’t handle anything else.

A friend of Holger’s visited while I was there. A Western suit as mad as I’ve ever met drunkenly intruded upon me at 2am. I shirted up, and joined him on the balcony for an expensive cigarette. This man loved the madness, truly loved it, and I loved his spectacle.

He swam in the chaos of Hong Kong. He spoke of lavish debauchery like he was a school counselor helping a freshman decide what classes to take. ‘Go to Hong Kong son. You can do anything there! Live like a fucking king!’ he shouted deep into the orange haze.

Working hard moving blocks of madness the size of freighters. Then it was lines in nightclub bathrooms, and benders and brothels, and drug-fueled orgies. On the glittering pinnacles of madness lie self-destructive prizes. Thanks old boy, but I’ll kill myself my own way.

These are the insights I gleaned from my stay in Singapore. And in stark contrast to the imposing towers of madness stood Holger, outlined by his own calm composure. I admired him. Holger had not succumbed to the madness, nor been turned bitter by it. He had carved out respect and dignity and comfort and some style from it. It is all anyone can hope for.

Because escape, of course, is impossible.

I wonder where, in all the wonderful madness, Holger estimates his place is. I wonder what path he charts, and what he imagines it leads to. And I wonder whether he feels the bedrock of substance beneath it all. I don’t know.

I stayed with Holger for three days and nights. I spent all three days lounging in the communal sauna of his building. Immune to the charms of city life (especially one choked under haze), and repulsed by the expense, I was content sweating out my sad, sad disposition.

Great thanks to Holger for the hospitality. And much more to him for his composed demeanor, and that glaze of refined cynicism on an otherwise sincere persona.

On the third morning, I jumped on a clean, comfortable, air-conditioned bus, and rode it to Melacca, Malaysia.

Thank you for reading.


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