Gabriel Ernst

As our society is speeding towards climate catastrophe, we must radically re-examine our relationship with and conception of the natural and material world, which is currently based on the hierarchies of our inter-human relationships: A blueprint for avoiding ecological collapse and radically improving the lives of humankind. 

On the well-worn roads between Bangkok and Khao Yai national park passing Saraburi a brutal scene unfolds. The masses of suburbs blurring by the window begin to transform into something even more hideous. Cement factories and processing plants, masses of concrete and heavy machinery. The scars on the mountains become visible, their once green peaks replaced by grey mines, their flanks scraped off, rendered a barren wasteland of rock and soil. How anyone making the trip to enjoy the Khao Yai nature reserve is not disgusted by this abomination is beyond me. But it is necessary, Bangkok’s ravenous appetite for concrete must be met as its suburbs sprawl ever wider, eventually and ironically reaching their material source at Saraburi. The mountain’s former inhabitants; the plants, animals, birds, fungi and insects, the delicate and intricately balanced system of life have been eviscerated.

It is not concrete that is destroying these precious lives but the constant capitalist drive of ‘grow and all else be damned’. Concrete creates roads, roads make room for cars, cars exhale fumes which are toxic to human life and the natural world. More roads necessitate more cars and more cars necessitate more roads. Meanwhile, forests are also cleared for mono-crop farmland owned by agricultural monopolies, who also own our distribution and sources of food, giving those of us without financial freedom little option than to buy from them. Thus increasing their stranglehold on their monopolies and accentuating the coming environmental catastrophe. This vicious cycle is a holistic, all-encompassing and well-documented evil, the conclusions on its unsustainability and its catastrophic ends, have already been reached. Yet Bangkok continues to grow, alongside CP’s profit line and Saraburis concrete industry continues to boom. 

In 2016, former US presidential candidate and world-renowned environmentalist, Al Gore gave a TED talk entitled ‘The case for optimism’ on climate change. In it, Gore lays out how capitalism and individual investments in green technologies are growing and he praises those who buy solar panels for their homes or drive hybrid electric cars. The overwhelmingly optimistic speech does recognise that far more needs to be done, but, in my opinion, wildly understates the gravity of the problem. Gore’s case in a microcosm is that capitalism will save us from climate catastrophe. My question for Gore is; if capitalism will save us, why hasn’t it saved us yet? According to the United Nations, we have only 11 years left to merely ‘limit climate change catastrophe’. Indeed we have already done irreparable damage. Furthermore, why is capitalism accentuating and hyperinflating the problem? Reading ecological news and speaking to climate scientists rightly gives the impression that we’re on a runaway train heading towards a brick wall with capitalism at the controls. The solution we’re given by Gore is ‘better, more responsible capitalism’, however, I think it is clear by now, to every honest person, that this solution is entirely lacking both in practice and in principle. To look for answers, even we can stay within Thailand and learn from those who have been living harmoniously with nature for centuries.

Changing Our Perceptions

The environmentalist and anthropologist Murray Bookchin theorised that there are 3 potentialities for humans and the natural world:

  • First Nature – The natural world not including humans
  • Second Nature – The human world
  • Third Nature – A potential future of humans living harmoniously with nature

Bookchin argues through Social Ecology that humans should be considered separate from nature, as we, through evolution, have the capability to choose how we wish to structure our communities, while the natural world acts instinctively in relation to stimuli, that is to say, it does not make a conscious decision about how to structure its society. Contemporary human society see’s nature as something to be dominated as a result of the hierarchical structure of our own society. We see nature as nothing more than a resource for humans to exploit, but with our extraordinary capability of consciousness and our scientific capabilities, humans have the potential to live in harmony with nature without drastically reducing our quality of life, rather drastically improving it in the long term by avoiding climate catastrophe. 

This theory and praxis are evidenced across Thailand, mostly with regards to the ethnic minorities living on the fringes of the kingdom. The ecological and social practices of the so-called ‘hill-tribe peoples’ better referred to as kon doi (คนดอย) in the north of the country, can be seen as socio-economic models to steer us away from catastrophe. 

Traditionally kon doi have practised semi-nomadic slash and burn subsistence agriculture, which while it is much maligned by the Thai state, it actually does far less harm to the environment than mass mono-cropping as it allows the nature to reclaim the former farmland, rather than draining it entirely by mono-cropping. Through these methods, they also practice self-sustainability, a concept highly promoted by the former king Rama 9, yet rarely practised among Thai people and largely discouraged by the policies of the Thai national government. 

The ‘damage’ traditionally inflicted on the forest by kon doi is relatively low and is typically self-sustainable. This is due to kon doi living on the fringes of the capitalist Thai state. They have not succumbed to the incessant capitalist drive for expansion, thus they live far more ecologically sound lives than the typical Thai person. A social-ecological interpretation of why they’re lacking this capitalist drive would be due to the social and material structures of their chosen society. Kon doi typically reject traditional institutional hierarchies found in the valley states below them, as such their societies are far more egalitarian and so do not see nature as a resource to be exploited and dominated, rather they see it as an intrinsic part of their lives that is to be harmonised with. 

To be clear the purpose of this article is not to suggest we all adopt a slash and burn subsistence agricultural lifestyle, it should be noted that on the assessment of many material factors kon doi typically live in worse material conditions than the Thai’s in the valley. However, I would suggest that we can learn from them a different way to view and conceptualise the natural world, so as to live more harmoniously with it. 

Democratising The Natural World

Thailand is, of course, a quasi-dictatorship, or perhaps a plutocracy (a government run for and by the extremely wealthy), either way, there is little to no democracy with regards to people’s life other than the faux democracy of neo-liberal capitalism. In which individuals are expected to vote with their wallet, where environmental policy is up to what brands we choose to give our money to, whether they are ‘greenwashed’ or overtly destroying the planet.

During the past year, the democracy movement in Thailand has awoken once again, with mass protests in cities across the kingdom. While these protests focus more on replacing the ruling elite with more democratically elected leaders, there are smaller, more localised protests taking place nationwide with regards to environmentalism. 

We at DinDeng have already covered the Om Koi coal mine protests in Chiang Mai province and The Isaan Record have done a fantastic job at covering the Nong Bua Lamphu mine protests in Udon Thani province. Furthermore, the eruption of protests in Chiang Mai city due to the mass clearing of land on Doi Suthep for a luxury military-owned housing development shows that there is an appetite for ‘green democracy’ within Thailand. However, I would argue that these movements need not only to join in solidarity with each other but to expand their demands into a more holistic anti-capitalist, anti-growth movement uniting the whole country and working together with the ongoing democracy movement. This work is already underway by the small Samanchorn Party (พรรคสามัญชน) based in Khon Kaen, however their membership numbers for now are still relatively low.

Housing development on Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

All of our material resources ultimately come from nature and as such, it is an ethical and material necessity that we democratise our relationship with the natural world, as ultimately failing to do so will lead to catastrophe. We can only do this, however, by democratising our society and removing the many institutional hierarchies which seek to commodify all of our social and material engagements. If humans themselves, our very beings, are conceptualised as nothing more than resources for labour, there is little hope to view the rest of the material world as nothing more than further resources. We as humans depend on one another for survival, as we depend on nature for its bounty of food and materials. We are entirely interdependent on both. As such we must restructure our society so as to restructure our perception of nature to view it not as just a resource for exploitation, but as part of the holistic fabric of our interdependent existence. 


Further Reading:
Murray Bookchin – The Ecology of Freedom (Cheshire Books: 1982)
Dan Chodorkoff – The Anthropology of Utopia (New Compass: 2014)
Howie Hawkins – Community Control, Worker’s Control and the Cooperative