Is there a role for cultural heritage in our struggle to avert global warming? Can we trust technology to ease the stressed-out state of the planet? Or should we look back over our shoulders at ancestral wisdom for some answers?
Speakers from 10 Asean nations mulled these questions at a conference on "Cultural Wisdom for Climate Action: the Southeast Asian Contribution," hosted by the Siam Society and Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage Alliance (Seacha) in Bangkok on Jan 12–14.
The contributors included scientists, activists, academics, religious leaders, architects, writers and artists. The most passionate voices belonged to 16 young leaders, including several from indigenous and minority communities. As a young Thai participant exclaimed in the discussion, "This matter is huge!"
In the past, the people of Southeast Asia appreciated the richness of the ecosystem, and they looked after it. Hunter-gatherer groups depended on exploiting nature, but they did so with respect and care. Swidden farmers, such as the Karen peoples of Myanmar and Thailand, rotated their use of land over cycles of 20 to 30 years to nurture the fertility of the soil. Fishermen and farmers worked by calendars determined by nature.
These practices were linked with beliefs that man, land, nature, gods and spirits were all part of the same system that had its own balance. This same idea is found among many different communities, each of which has its own expression of religion and spirituality.
The White Tai groups in the mountains of northern Vietnam practised a form of animism. In Indonesia, the Javanese practised Islam. The Thai adopted Buddhism but believed in spirits as well. The rice farmers of Bali practised the Tri Hita Karana form of Hinduism that binds the lives of individuals with the community, the change of seasons, and the spirits in the countless temples that dot the island's countryside.
A principle common to all these old communities, whatever the language or religion, was the importance of a balance between man, nature and spiritual powers. Among the Muslims of Indonesia, the word mizan means not only "balance" but, more generally, the proper order of the universe. Among Thai Buddhists, the word thammachat means "nature" in the sense of both what naturally exists and also what is right and good in a world of constant change.
These beliefs were not confined to the people of the mountains and rice paddies. They were shared by urban dwellers and rulers, especially at times when nature revealed its awful power. Two hundred years ago, after a battering by volcanic eruptions and typhoons, a Javanese ruler drew up a constitution to create harmony between man, nature and the gods.
In the past, people built houses that were sensitive to the climate. Village houses were raised on stilts above the floods, capped by wide roofs against the sun, and oriented to the wind. The shophouses in the towns and cities deployed the same principles along with special materials and devices to manage heat and light in the more crowded urban environment.
Today many of the traditional communities which retain these beliefs have been marginalised, looked down upon as primitive, and urged, indeed compelled, to adopt a modern, technological way of life. With the coming of concrete and air-conditioning, architects and builders have forsaken the old ways, resulting in cities that guzzle energy and spew out heat.
Yet the old methods can still be revived. The recently refitted Faculty of Architecture building at the National University of Singapore has adapted old principles to create a multi-story building that requires no artificial air conditioning.
For the past century and more, Western concepts of "scientific modernity" have pushed aside this indigenous heritage. The Western-dominated global discourse on countering global warming has focused on new technologies. Speakers at the Bangkok conference pointed out the irony of looking to technological solutions for a problem caused by technology in the first place. They called for inclusion of traditional beliefs, practices, and techniques in national climate action strategies.
COP 27, the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Egypt last year, noted "the cultural dimensions" of the causes of climate change and urged using culture to help. As an outcome of this month's heritage conference in Bangkok, the Siam Society and Seacha will join the Petra National Trust of Jordan in co-chairing the cultural agenda of COP 28, to be held this year in Dubai.
Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia can lead the world in making cultural heritage an important part of global climate change action. But the region's heritage itself is imperilled. To help protect our planet, these nations' governments need to strengthen their policies on protecting heritage.
James Stent is an advisor to SEACHA. Heritage Matters is a monthly column presented by The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage to advocate sustaining the architectural, cultural and natural heritage of Thailand and the region. Each column is written by a different contributor. The views expressed are those of the author.