On Wednesday evening last year, I learnt that my wife and I were going to have a baby.
The next morning, I learnt that the pollution in Hanoi would probably get into the baby’s blood before birth and that there were good chances that it could have an impact on the baby’s life.
And the very next day, a colleague of mine received an SMS warning on his phone because his air quality app had detected “extreme” air pollution levels in Hanoi.
It is obvious that air pollution is making everyone sick, but there seems to be no sense of urgency in responding to it. We seem incapable of going beyond the rhetorical acknowledgement of the seriousness of the problem, which, it bears repeating, contributes significantly to global warming.
Recently revised figures point to a possible temperature increase of as much as 7 degrees Celsius within the next 80 years, a catastrophic development set to grievously hurt life on earth.
From a merely socioeconomic perspective, the consequences are obvious. More sick people, which means more spending on health, reduced productivity (and growth) of the economy, exacerbated by “natural” disasters of greater intensity like more frequent and more severe heatwaves and typhoons killing more people and destroying more crops and buildings every year.
Heatwaves kill babies and elderly people first with poor people bearing the brunt of these deaths because they live in housing that offers scant protection from heat, storms and all forms of pollution.
We have already received dire warnings about the impacts of rising sea levels. It is said that most of Vietnam south of Ho Chi Minh City and a big part of the Red River delta along with a lot of the Vietnamese coast will be underwater by the time our grand-grandchildren inherit this earth. In such a situation, chances are Vietnam will not be able to produce enough food to feed its own population.
So we are facing disasters of catastrophic proportions, but how many of us are taking this really seriously and thinking really seriously about it?
When I see someone in a big expensive car on the road taking up all the road space and polluting the air for the others, I wonder about that person and his/her awareness of the existential threat that is facing all of us. When I see everyone struggling to make their way through traffic jams, I wonder what on earth allows us to behave as though increasing public transportation is not an emergency task that should go alongside discouraging individual means of transport, not just bikes, which seem to be the focus of Vietnamese authorities, though cars are a much bigger part of the problem.
The situation in Vietnam now is that the economy is doing well (the Covid-19 impacts are seen as temporary, and even advantageous in the long run with shifting supply chains benefiting the country), so everyone is kind of having a party on top of a hill. Of course, everyone comes to the party in their cars. In the middle of the fun, some people bump some cars and the cars start going downhill (yes, we forgot to put on the parking brake). But, at the beginning, the cars are going down slowly, so no one notices it and those who do notice the motion don’t really care because the cars are still slow enough that they can be stopped. Then, the acceleration happens. Today we see the cars (climate change) going downhill really fast and our ability to stop them is being stretched to the limit. And what I am trying to tell you is that all future generations are downhill and are going to be crushed by those cars (climate change) unless we stop the cars now. Now is our last chance to save future generations.
In Vietnamese history, there have been many heroes who fought invaders and were responsible for leading the country to its current greatness. Now we are facing a new kind of enemy who is far more dangerous than any external force – our own habits. This enemy is virtually invisible and always present. So there are as many enemies as there are people in Vietnam, as long as we are engaged in the habit of wasting and polluting.
Only when we really know and accept that the dangerous enemy is us – our habits – can we even think of joining the battle, which has to be fought each and every day, each and every minute. If we do not fight now, our children and grandchildren would have already lost the battle. Are we willing to let that happen?
Big battles demand big sacrifices. In this battle, we need to sacrifice some of our comforts and indulgences. This might be hard to accept when we are told time and again that our happiness depends on our ability to indulge, to consume more and more.
In this battle, we need a new kind of hero. We need heroes leading changes in our society to protect its future. We need heroes with courage and vision almost unseen on the political front, capable of educating the people, of explaining to them the dangers that await. We need heroes with a convincing force and a charisma strong enough to surpass the unconscious adversity of an entire people.
Being such a hero will not be easy, but without such heroic leadership, the world, including Vietnam, is doomed. My hope is that today’s and future Vietnam and Hanoi leaders will take on this burden, gather people willing to help them bear it, and together, under their leadership, take Vietnam towards a safer, healthier future.
I am one of those people willing to help them achieve this and I am sure that many other people are as well.
*Sebastien Eskenazi is an AI expert and data scientist living in Hanoi.