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South-east Asia's smog: the environmental crisis that points to political liberation

The smog affecting south-east Asia may be the most politically significant environmental event yet. In the past few weeks confidence in the region's economies has begun to crumble. This collapse is only related to the smog by an accident of timing, but it is a coincidence whose political repercussions will reverberate long after the smog has cleared.

Much has been made of the notion that the region's economic success was based on a distinctive set of Asian values, which invalidated Western judgements about the authoritarian or corrupt nature of the regimes, or about the environmental destruction accompanying their development.

The smog and its aftermath will severely test the truth of this notion. Failing to deliver breathable air as the price to be paid for cars, personal computers and video cameras is one thing; failing to deliver breathable air when you can no longer reliably deliver the prospect of a consumer cornucopia is another.

The El Nino climate perturbation growing in strength in the Southern Pacific is likely to run on well into next year, bringing a continuation of the drought that has conspired with reckless forest burning to produce the smog. If the smog does continue for months rather than weeks, we will be witnessing an environmental catastrophe on an unprecedented scale. The health of tens of millions of people, especially children, will be permanently damaged.

South-east Asian governments have offered their populations authority in place of legitimacy. This places a premium on their ability to deliver. Their helplessness in the face of this environmental catastrophe is clear to everyone - around the world on television screens, and to their citizens with every breath they take.

That this very visible undermining of their authority has coincided with the less visible but no less real emergence of clear limits to their economic infallibility will add enormous popular impetus to those calling for greater democracy in the region.

Leaders would do well to remember that one of the broadest avenues down which the march to freedom took place in Eastern Europe was the environment, since it was in this - people couldn't breathe the air there either - that their failure to balance authority with legitimacy took its most tangible form.

Tom Burke is Visiting Professor in Environmental Policy at Imperial College, London.