Political commentator Yang Hsien-hung (楊憲宏) once presented what he called the “golden toilet theory”: What if someone were to give you a pure gold, high-tech toilet on the condition that it must be placed in the center of your living room, so that anyone who wants to go to the loo will have to do it in the living room. Would you accept it?
Yang said the point is no matter how valuable, high tech or advanced the toilet is, no one can deprive you of the right to choose whether to accept the offer.
Yang’s theory shows that the quality of a toilet and where it should be placed are two different matters, but people often confuse one with the other and think that as long as it is advanced technology, it can be placed anywhere. The proposed relocation of Taipei International Airport (Songshan airport) is such a fallacy.
Supporters of the relocation view themselves as members of the scientific elite. They believe the scientific basis for their arguments to be objective facts. For instance, they say the airspace of Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport and that of Songshan airport overlap, the primary runway of Songshan airport is so short that big airplanes cannot land or take off — and think these are facts that cannot be challenged. Hence, Songshan airport must be relocated and all aircraft should use Taoyuan airport instead. The real goal of those elites is to repackage a public policy issue and turn it into a scientific issue. They reckon that public policies are purely the domain of scientific research, that they are value-neutral, and can only be discussed and determined within the scientific context that they have established. Whoever dares to object is anti-science and uneducated.
In fact, this is an example of technological determinism, an idea that was popular in the past century.
Political elites and technocrats usually manipulate this discourse to replace democracy and take away the public’s right to choose. Given the magnitude of air traffic that would be transferred to Taoyuan airport, has anyone ever asked the opinions of residents of Taoyuan — especially, those living in Dayuan District (大園)? And is there really no way to resolve the issue of overlapping airspace? If not, why are there still airplanes in the air right now? Moreover, must all airports be built to accommodate big airplanes? Why must there only be big airports and no small or medium-sized ones? Perhaps these elites have forgotten that technology is used to help people make choices and not to make the choices for them, just as you have an absolute right to choose to reject a gold toilet.
This discourse is not only intended to prevent democratic choice, it is also designed to hide the oppression of the disadvantaged by the advantaged, a matter that belongs in the realm of environmental justice. In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice published a report on toxic waste and race in the US, showing that toxic waste sites were predominantly near minority communities.
This posed a serious threat to their health and lives, and subjected them to much higher risk than other ethnic groups and communities. In the late 1980s, hazardous waste facilities, incinerators and landfill sites were primarily situated in black communities in the southern US. Moreover, 11 out of 14 proposed nuclear waste sites were in native American communities.
This utterly unfair distribution of risk shocked the US. Academics started calling for environmental justice, opposing the various means that majority groups and capitalists used to badger minority groups into accepting unfavorable facilities, including airports. In light of this, then-US president Bill Clinton ordered that certain public constructions not only have to undergo environmental impact assessments, but also environmental justice assessments, to protect socially disadvantaged groups.
As National Dong Hwa University professor Chi Chun-chieh (紀駿傑) has said: “Environmental justice basically advocates for the minority and disadvantaged groups’ freedom from environmental injustice, the proportionate distribution of social resources and sustainable usage of resources, all of which will improve the quality of life for all.”
Development in Taiwan is extremely imbalanced. That the north is prioritized over the south is a well-known phenomenon. For a long time Taipei has received a great many benefits: air quality, water quality, transportation infrastructure, medical facilities, arts and entertainment, etc, all are the best of the nation. How can it be so merciless that it would remove something it does not want and place it in another city?
Everyone wants Taiwan to be a better place, but it should be a better place for all, not just for Taipei, leaving other cities in shambles and on the receiving end of evils that Taipei does not want.
Hsu Shih-jung is a professor in National Chengchi University’s land economics department.