Choking on Smoke, While the Western World Fears Smoked Bacon

I recently had the chance to talk with a friend from home, and amidst all of our general catch up talk and laughter, we also ended up talking about our varied frustrations regarding the dangers of bacon and the dangers of smog.

The two are related, believe it or not.  Recently, various social media platforms I use, as well as various newspapers I follow, blew up with the news that WHO had declared bacon just as dangerous as cigarettes.  And to be honest, seeing how pervasive this news was, I found myself a little angry.  Now, while I’ m sure this news will have effects on the agricultural industry around the world and will create great controversy among dietitians for some time, none of this is why I was upset by the article (though, as a farm-girl, I do care about how media coverage affects agriculture, as well as well-thought advancements in health).  I was angry because while I saw numerous articles about smoked bacon in various newspapers, what I wasn’t seeing was articles about the smoke that almost completely obscures Indonesia when viewed from space.

This smoke comes from the burning of forests in order to “improve” the soil for paper pulp and palm oil production.  This practice, combined with the fact that the rains have come late this year, means that the fires have been even more damaging than in previous years, even though they are generally pretty awful every year.

Meanwhile, the Facebook feeds of my fellow ETAs in Indonesia, past and present, fill with articles about the haze in various parts of Indonesia, from the Mogabay article that talks about officials in Palangkaraya wearing face masks inside parliament, to the Jakarta Globe article that calls the fire crisis the biggest environmental crime of the 21st century. There is the BBC article about potential child evacuation, and the Jakarta Post’s article which calls this an humanitarian crisis.

For us, here and now, it is personal.  Two of our fellow ETAs have been evacuated more than once from their site (and have maintained blogs about their experiences, here and here), due to the smog being so hazardous.  This means they have been significantly delayed in being able to immerse fully and connect with the communities in which they are supposed to be engaging.  (And they are the lucky ones, by comparison–many residents do not have the means to leave these smog-filled cities.  It is only because we are fortunate enough to be part of a program with people whose job it is to consider our well-being that we are able to leave places deemed too dangerous to live in…everyone just has to try to keep on living.)  Other ETAs live in cities not filled with enough smog for them to be evacuated, but their lives are still defined by its presence.  Their friends, their coworkers, their students, are living in a place that is choking… pictures of smoke from space cannot speak as loudly as the distinct relationship this smog has to people’s everyday lives.

In some ways, it is a weird, twisted privilege that we are living here at this time of crisis.  If we did not live here, and did not have the connection to this place that we do, I wonder if we would have any idea this was happening.  We would probably be just as clueless as many of our fellow American’s back home.  Because so often, this part of the world simply does not make the news in Western countries.

I do not blame my friends or family members back home for not knowing the details of what is going on here.  If I did not live here, I would be guilty of just as much ignorance.  My news feeds are filled daily with articles about the U.S. presidential race (which really isn’t even yet underway), but nothing regarding the fires that are burning beautiful, necessary jungles to the ground.  And even as I try to expand the news coverage I receive, and I begin to learn more about issues and triumphs in Asia and South America, Africa, the second largest continent in both area and population, remains a blank space in my understanding of the world.

My friend tries to comfort my inane Western guilt: “If we tried to keep up on the news in all parts of the world, it would be a full time job.  That’s why we have the media: it’s their full-time job.” It’s a systematic issue, I know, and one I have no power, or qualifications, to change.

But I cannot help but fume–sometimes silently, sometimes quite vocally–when the world gets up in arms about bacon, while meanwhile… Indonesia is burning.