Cities heat up and we’re the ‘boiling frogs’

opinion April 22, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

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While Japanese ‘bathe’ in forests, Thais heedlessly let developers pave over green spaces

The rush out of Bangkok during Songkran was largely traditional, but also partly due to the fact that the capital gets so hot at this time of year. It has always been thus and, given that Thailand sits squarely in the subtropics, the accepted wisdom is that there’s nothing to be done beyond air-conditioning and iced drinks to make its residents feel a little cooler. We can complain all we like when the temperature soars, but intense heat happens to be our “comfort zone”. 

Unfortunately, Bangkok is in fact getting hotter, and climate change needn’t enter into the equation. Scientists have long warned that the city is becoming an urban “heat island” due mainly to its dearth of green areas. It is one of the least-green cities in Asia. While cooling off in Bangkok comes down to residents gleefully throwing water at one another three days a year, urban Japanese take a far more sustainable approach, known as “forest bathing”, which is done all year round but appreciated most in warm seasons.

Forest bathing involves nothing more than being among trees, although practitioners also believe they’re acknowledging the importance of the natural environment to the human body and soul. For the most part they aren’t seeking exercise in the woods, merely “loitering with intent” – to soak up the calm and relative coolness. For decades it’s been part of Japan’s national public-health programme, and the benefits have been scientifically proved.

A large-scale medical study conducted between 2004 and 2012 evaluated people’s immune systems before and after a weekend spent in the woods. It found significant improvement in the week following a forest visit. Cells responded more quickly to viral infection and the formation of tumours. The immune system was better able to ward off cancer. And these benefits tended to last a month.  

What’s more, a cleansing “bath” beneath a canopy of shady, oxygen-exuding trees is believed to instil in people a love for the natural environment. In Japan no one has to be forced to be a tree hugger. Everyone enjoys being in natural settings, so forest bathing has become a cherished ritual.

Bangkok residents, on the other hand, are seeing their green space shrink at an alarming rate, swallowed up by development in a mercenary rush to build more shopping malls, more high-rises and more places to park cars. Global environmental watchdogs agree that a city needs around nine square metres of green area per person to be considered “healthy”, but Bangkok has nowhere near that much. And the same push to “pave paradise” is increasingly extending into rural areas, where forests are being destroyed by either wealthy developers or uninformed residents in genuine need.

Consider the “boiling frog theory”, which suggests that a frog placed in water whose temperature rises little by little will make no effort to escape before it’s too late. Are Thais in their urban heat islands being slowly boiled alive, oblivious to the impending catastrophe?

The obvious solution would be to plant more trees and cut down fewer. But Thais, despite or perhaps because they’re relatively less prosperous than the Japanese, tend to be more obsessed with material wealth. Given the choice, most would choose money over trees. 

The personal affection that Japanese have for nature has never been ingrained in Thais. Occasionally there is uproar on the social media about large, old trees being felled to make way urban development, and certainly we have activists saving some of them. But without natural love for nature spread widely among the populace, we’re all frogs sitting in a kettle of apathy.