Languages are strange. I’m not sure I’d consider myself bilingual, though I’ve heard Mandarin Chinese from birth and learned it in school up through age 17, reading, listening, speaking, writing the language at least a few times a week. I express myself primarily in English, and definitely think and dream in English (though I do simple multiplications in Mandarin… thanks to abacus classes and rote memory of times tables) . I barely write now, only the occasional short letters and cards to grandmothers. The last time I wrote substantially in Mandarin would have been a decade ago for my last exam, in 2009. It seems funny now to think of it; would I still be able to read what I wrote?
Yet emotions, nostalgia, relationships all seem better expressed in, or at least more associated with Mandarin, to me. Perhaps it’s the songs I listen to. In any case, I felt like writing in Mandarin; apologies to any native Mandarin speaker reading this if I wrote anything wrongly/badly and do leave a comment pointing it out!
English translation: Memories Sometimes, I recall the past Those years of friendship, frank conversations Relaxed jokes, reality of that time Maybe some friendships are meant to last forever Maybe friendships were always meant to be ephemeral All I know is that those past friendships cannot be regained And will never again experience that happiness of friendships.
2019 comes to an end, and so ends another decade. Like any other, but also not; I think this decade particularly significant for those of my cohort. 2010, I finished my A levels, and went on my first overseas trip with friends – to Krabi, Thailand to climb. In the intervening decade, I have traveled much more and further, on my own, with friends, with family, and as a couple (and also realised that my travels need to be limited). I finished two degrees and embarked on a third, found a special person, and discovered a cause and a reason for hope, beyond the usual environmental despair. I feel as though the past decade was time spent searching, trying to understand life, purpose, and society, and stumbling, have seized on a vision. Realising that what I seek from life is communal, convivial, simple, self-limiting living, and that just working (even for a cause, for ‘charity’ or for a better environment) without questioning the systemic and structural inequalities would still result in a ‘mid-life crisis’.
It’s the decade between being a child and being a contributing member of society, an in-between stage where I am allowed to explore and forge my path, a privilege I acknowledge that others may never get to enjoy. These ten years have been very formative, changing my outlook and perspective on many things in life (that many things/people cannot and should not be generalised and pigeon-holed, that there are different realities and perspectives different people have and hold depending on their circumstance, privilege, learning etc., and from accepting the dominant political-economic structure to questioning that and re-imagining what society could be). I sometimes feel I have shifted so much, that I am in-between, neither here nor there. Neither completely comfortable in Singapore (where my views and opinions seem more radical perhaps, making it hard to find common grounds to make friends), nor wholly relaxed in the UK (where I’m no longer a privileged majority, though I’ve since gotten better at blending in with my speech). I’ve had to learn new customs and norms, not just of British humours and slangs, but also that of my new family. I’ve really felt in-between different identities and cultural traditions, being a Teochew Chinese Catholic Singaporean and blending in with Palestinian Arab Muslim Greek Cypriot British cultures (and understanding all of the associated histories, nuances and grievances).
What’s resulted is an explicit recognition of power, and how much it shapes our reality. Of the colonised and colonisers, in the Singaporean context, not just of the British as a coloniser, but also in some ways, of the Chinese in the Malay Peninsula, and also of the government in deciding that Mandarin Chinese will be the official mother tongue of all ethnic Chinese descendents. Seeing two sides simultaneously, and the power wrought by one over another. But not just that of racial, ethnic, or economic identities, but also of knowledge. Whose knowledge is legitimate and valued, and whose is less. I’ve been struggling to make positivist, applied ecological science gel with more normative social sciences, with my inherent preference for and ability to apply methods provided by large-scale remote-sensing data that seeks to prescribe what’s the ‘best’ thing to do without necessarily knowing local contexts, yet wanting to also engage with more nuanced, case-specific and practically-relevant but time-consuming methods. It is tiring to translate between two worlds, with their different world views and normative ontologies and epistomologies, particularly when one does not acknowledge the other.
Yet perhaps this constant tension, of different views and cultures, and different powers (as long as one is not completely disempowered and marginalised) is just what life is. It becomes a struggle to find an identity and fit into a box, to find comradeship and solidarity, flitting around but never fitting nicely. Yet it is not completely necessary to fit into a box, in order to live one’s life well. More in-betweens, rather than false dichotomies like introverts and extroverts, would probably more suit the diversity of peoples in society, with less pressure to conform and so keep the cogs of the machine turning. And so, the next decade will be spent pursuing a more pluralistic vision of what the ‘good life’ is, and trying to resist hegemonic societal economic pressures to conform and succumb to an individualistic neoliberal capitalist globalised world.
And a special mention to my 公公 (maternal grandfather) who passed away a few months ago at the grand old age of 96, whom I don’t recall speaking except saying “来公公 sayang” (come to grandfather to be doted on, vaguely translated) once to my cousin’s 2 year old son, but loves durians and oh ni (yam paste) and will always get up to have a little nibble. May your soul rest in peace.
[Updated 16 Dec 2019 to correct what Kallis’ book Limits actually meant about limits]
I chanced upon this investigative article/docufilm The Source | The human cost hidden within a cup of coffee on Twitter, as with almost everything interesting to me these days. It is a very lengthy article (or you can watch it in 25 mins), revealing the farce of certification labels and the very real hard labour that go into the coffees that make their way into our hands and bellies. The investigation focused their attention on the child labour implicated within the Mexican Chiapas coffee supply chain; officially and legally, children below 15 years of age are not allowed to work. But the coffee berry pickers, mostly seasonal migrants from Guatemala, come with their children, for the alternative is to leave behind their children to starve. Neither can the children be left unattended while the adults leave to work in the day, and families could well do with the extra hands to increase their meagre income.
Personally, I see little issue with children (aged 7ish and above) ‘working’; children have always lived where adults worked and from around that age, started picking up the skills and experience needed to later take on full responsibilities. In fact, is schooling not essentially preparing children to work in offices, training us to sit quietly at our desks, obeying instructions and commands from higher ups?
Still, work for children has to be age-appropriate, and I greatly concurred with the indignation and concern that was voiced in the investigation about the heavy sacks of picked coffee berries the children were carrying. Child labour aside, given that coffee generates more than $80 billion per year globally, and there was a 40% drop in the price of coffee on the world market in the past two years, surely the precarious and severely underpaid (~$4.50/day) position of the Guatemalan migrants would be a cause for investigation and alarm in itself. The investigation’s point was that though many large corporations now subscribe to ethical certification labels and claim to be slavery (or sometimes deforestation)-free and fair, these labels do a poor job of actually ensuring that farms comply with the certification requirements, hence though end-consumers may believe they are drinking an ethical cup of coffee, it is often far from the truth.
Not a week ago, I read another article The Coup in Bolivia Has Everything to Do With the Screen You’re Using to Read This (but for a better context of what’s happening in Bolivia, read this). It’s got a much more political slant than the coffee supply chain article, but to me, the point made was similar. That transnational corporations (mining lithium, in the case of Bolivia) have the biggest say in the lives of millions, usually vulnerable people in the Global South. Whether it’s economic profit over an intact environment, human livelihood and dignity, or even lives (non-human, Indigenous or otherwise dependent on the land), massive amounts of money is channeled to corporations headquartered in other, usually Global North countries. And states have little to no role to play in the matter, whether by force (economic or physical) or by choice (being part of the Global North of the Global South).
[Coincidentally, the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights happens to be going on at the moment in Geneva, Switzerland, with some attention paid to environmental defenders who have lost their lives (which is how I stumbled upon this event). Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have live-streaming or comprehensive live-tweeting covering their talks, which is a real shame. Hopefully there will be some media reports or popular articles coming out post-event.]
And so, what are we left with? More tinkering around the edges, certifications and labels to assure us end-consumers of the fairness of this globalised economic system? That we can have our cake and eat it all – coffees and smart devices for everyone who can afford to purchase them, fair wages to everyone along the supply chain, no environmental destruction and no lives lost (alongside profits for stakeholders and top earnings for CEOs of these corporations)?
It seemed so obvious to me once the point was made – we cannot have infinite things, infinite wants, infinite growth on a finite planet. I cannot understand why ‘plastics is bad’ has managed to get widespread attention but ‘we live on a finite planet’ has failed to receive similar coverage. Well actually, I can. Because one can tinker around the edges with plastics (make biodegradable ones, get bacteria to eat them, replace plastics with other resource-consuming products etc.), but facing up to the reality of the biophysical boundaries of our planets? That requires a whole system change.
I’ve just started reading Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care by Giorgos Kallis (whose article on Socialism Without Growth first got me aware and thinking about these issues about two years ago). It is time we imposed limits on ourselves (as we already do to live collectively in a society, but not holistically enough) and work towards a system that would be fair for all people (but especially the historically disenfranchised and marginalised), living and non-living entities that make up the wonder that is our planet. So vote, hopefully for the better, because it matters.
[Update on 16 Dec 2019] Having read a few more chapters of the book, I’ve realised that Kallis’ interpretation of limits is not that we should impose limits on ourselves because resources are finite. The concept of finite resources was actually meant to make us consume more (classical economics’ laws of demand and supply). Rather, by self-imposing limits, we can gain more freedom (like Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice ), provide space (physical and metaphorical) for others (human and non-human, living and non-living), and avoid the negative consequences. Importantly, by it being self-imposing (rather than ascribing limits to the environment, as in ‘planetary boundaries’), we have agency and take on the responsibility of the consequences.
The clock has gone forward; British Summer Time is no more. The days are shorter, the nights longer, and the chill starts to set in. The layers come out, and that one winter coat after months of hiding in storage. What also comes out, is the homesickness, craving the warmth and sun of tropical Singapore. Or perhaps, an undiagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The trigger would be Instagram, a double whammy for me. In the first instance, I hate the platform for its outward and obvious celebration of capitalism and its excesses, built on our very human nature of wanting to celebrate friends’ happiness and share good things. Yet it also fans egocentricisms and inferiority complexes, and highlights disparities and equalities by what does not appear. The second, stronger emotion of missing ‘home’ is accentuated by the Singapore-dominated feed – it was a way for me to keep updated of friends’ going-ons when I went off Facebook, and for some reason it was mainly Singaporeans. Perhaps Singaporeans have bought more into the Insta trend than others, or perhaps there was a sub-conscious bias of only following my fellow countryfolk. In any case, Instagram is Singapore-centric, while Facebook is filled with people met over the years all over the world.
The unsettled emotions are further compounded by being separated from loved ones and the general distress of not knowing what one’s PhD is about – a feeling I am told is quite common among first years (but not allowed to perpetuate beyond that!). A heady swirl of emotions.
The world all around is erupting into action. Protests and marches, against gross economic inequalities, corruption, false democracies, and all other humanly grievances. I’m not enough of a political analyst to consider if this is a second 1968, but the future would be terrifying to behold if the end result is further divisions, the pitting of people against people and nations against nations, and the hoarding of resources by those able.
I read Vivan Claire Liew’s commentary on Singapore’s climate action on Channel News Asia with great interest – and disappointment. The issues of climate breakdown, alongside the ongoing biodiversity crisis and widespread land-use conversion, are not recent ‘hot news’ to me, but interests that have taken me from ‘A’ level biology through to pursuing a doctorate degree. At the ages between 20 and 30, when one matures into adulthood and joins the ranks of society, the future becomes something a lot more tangible and real, accompanied by many questions that never used to bother me – do I want to have children; what kind of world will they be living in? Do I want to buy a house; will it still be a viable place to live as global warming accelerates?
As such, I was glad too, that our Prime Minister openly acknowledged the challenge of climate breakdown in his National Day Rally, in contrast to the responses of many other heads of states. I choose to use the word ‘breakdown’ instead of mere ‘change’ to signify that what is happening is going to result in a disaster for humanity, following The Guardian and many other climate experts. Yet I cannot help but be alarmed by the solutions that are put forth, exemplified by Liew’s commentary.
. Yet I cannot help but be alarmed by the solutions that are put forth, exemplified by Liew’s commentary.
As she acknowledges, Singapore as a country does emit a lot of carbon. We use up a lot of resources. Unfortunately, the paradigm shift that is actually required to save our homeland and our world does not include green growth. I am rephrasing and using the ideas of many better intellectuals, academics, activists and concerned citizens of the world than myself in the following paragraphs, but these ideas and the community that I’ve found in them have been the only real beacon of hope I’ve found in dealing with the pressing issues of our age, from climate breakdown to massive social inequality.
The false allure of economic growth
Growing up in Singapore, the imperative of continuing economic growth was an ever-resounding anthem, mentioned in daily news, quarterly reports, and annual speeches. Taught at ‘A’ level Economics that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market will – and is the only mechanism that can – distribute scarce resources efficiently, I was never allowed to question the logic of the market or capitalism (I attempted to make sense of this issue 7 years ago, and it’s interesting to see how I’ve changed and grown intellectually). Yet, why not? What is it about economic growth that warrants this hallowed, no-go zone attitude towards it?
Economic growth depends on resource consumption (and so, carbon emissions). There has been no evidence to show any absolute decoupling of resource use and growth, and any efficiency gains that may be achieved are far overshadowed by increasing demand. Singapore has been trying to shift its economy to a more service-oriented one – but services still require infrastructure and inputs that take up resources. Focusing on economic growth (as a metric of success or progress) is to foolishly cling onto a sinking money chest in the sea, slowing drowning ourselves instead of letting go to save our lives.
It is often said that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ (quote by USA President John F. Kennedy), and so we need a growing economy to improve the lives of the poor. Poverty and inequality though, exists by design and not by nature. We can implement policies to redistribute resources for a fairer outcome, and ensure a high standard of living and well-being for all. We could start with shorter work weeks and a Universal Basic Income – so people can choose to stay at home and look after their children or parents, instead of outsourcing it to a foreign domestic worker. It would improve parent-child relationships, reduce our reliance on (and concomitant exploitation of) foreign workers, and have happier families. What is more important in life, our relationships, or continually rising incomes beyond what is necessary? Or, existentially speaking, a habitable, living planet, or one with extreme climate events, little arable land and high social conflict?
Climate breakdown is a strong imperative to change our game, but doing so while neglecting to address social injustices, would be irresponsible and unethical, and this goes beyond our shorelines. As a small and resource-poor nation (as we are often told in National Education classes), we have to import most of our goods, leaving an environmental and social footprint trailing across the world that impacts (mostly) Global South nations and poorer communities. Yet if we were able to curb our demand, and invest greater effort into producing for home consumption (restarting certain vital industries), we could both cut down our carbon footprint and minimise the damage we inflict on others beyond our borders. My aunt runs a business producing handmade sofas, and struggles, unsurprisingly, to find Singaporeans who are both skilled and willing to do such craftswork. I would say though, that making something with your own hands, something that is useful, is of great value to oneself and to society, and is a job that deserves much higher ‘standing’ in our society than we give it. I, with my mediocre Design & Technology skills, was extremely proud and satisfied with myself when I (with help from others) built a double bed which slides to expand and can be opened up for storage underneath.
We do need to stop financing fossil fuel industries, and support businesses that implement planet- and people-friendly practices. We do need to switch to renewable energies, and shift to low-emission transport and infrastructures, while reducing overall demand for energy. We can place more emphasis on care work, which is low-carbon-intensive, meaningful and worthwhile, and absolute necessary but impossible to automate. Letting go of economic growth is not saying we don’t need businesses and markets, just that we cannot keep producing more, year-on-year, and that industries which do not add to our well-being and damage our ecosystem should be phased out. It means ditching the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a metric for success, and adopting instead, the Genuine Progress Indicator, for example. Anyone who has taken ‘A’ level Economics is well-versed in why GDP is a poor measure for success; further it is a tool that has long-outlived its intended use. It was designed to aid planning in World War II, and with its way of making deforestation and natural disasters count positively in a nation’s GDP, ought to be retired.
Since 2017, I have fallen out of the habit of announcing life events/my movements on social media, yet somehow I still feel a need to announce/document my starting a Doctor of Philosophy programme this October at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences. It’s been a fairly long and considered process, since graduating from my bachelor’s in 2015. It took me 2 months of a voluntary/self-searched research internship at the University of Queensland, a year-long master’s programme at Imperial College London, 15 months research associate job at Nanyang Technological University and another year of intense reading/learning and 9 applications* to finally land myself a PhD (with a scholarship).
I had struggled with the question – to do a PhD or not – the whole time, questioning my motivations for wanting to do a PhD (prestige/reputation? trying to keep on par with my peers from similar educational backgrounds who have already finished/are in the midst of doing their PhD?), my level of commitment knowing what the graduate environment could be like (been reading PHD Comics since finishing GCE ‘A’ levels… though I’m aware the environment in the USA can be quite different to elsewhere), and most importantly, what topic I would want to spend the next 3-5 years of my life working on. The four years I had spent since my bachelor’s was formative in shaping the kind of research experience/academic mentor/environment I would like to have, and realising that I do thoroughly enjoy the research process and being part of the academic community. But I think the key question on what research is worth me spending those years on (and somebody paying me to do it) was really only answered after I attended the summer school on degrowth and environmental justice last July.
Doing a PhD is usually seen as the start of an academic career, culminating in a professorship, and I’ve seen enough criticisms of academia to know that I didn’t want to work on something with no “direct relevance” to reality and to be accused of being in an “ivory tower”. Engaging with political ecology and environmental justice literature also brought into focus many of the political and economic realities faced by those impacted by conservation measures, which are often times overlooked by researchers or perpetuated through conservation interventions. There’s still a lot to learn and think about (and work towards), but for my PhD thesis, I am intending to examine telecoupled links of protected areas in Colombia, Colombia because the lab that I will be joining (Prof David Edwards lab) has a good number of links there that I can tap on. I am sure this will be refined and evolve as I start the PhD process, but I’m really psyched to use the telecoupling framework to look at how distant actors and flows affect local systems.
I’m also really excited about starting the PhD in Sheffield. I had applied to do the undergraduate degree in the Animal and Plant Sciences department 9 years ago (I took a gap year after completing my A levels), and I’m pleased to be able to finally experience being there. Not to mention all the climbing!!
*Coming back to the process of applying for PhDs, I think the main advice I can give is to apply to many and hope for the best (and also make sure you apply to labs you think you’ll fit in/professors whom you can work with). I had applied for 9 programmes from universities across Europe (including the UK), some of which were funded (the European programmes) and others which I had to separately apply for scholarship funding. I was offered a place in Vienna, but declined as I wasn’t prepared to move there (I was being hopefully optimistic when I applied and did not expect to get anywhere near the final selection of candidates, since I did not think my previous research experience fitted what I would be doing. But I really liked the topic that was being investigated, which was hidden emissions of forest transitions). I obtained offers of placement from most of the UK universities I applied to, but unfortunately did not manage to secure any funding. I was all ready to give up ever securing a PhD (scholarship) and so any hopes for an academic career, when an email advertisement forwarded by my previous supervisor A/P Janice Lee at NTU appeared in my inbox. I applied, got interviewed, and was offered the PhD scholarship (all within two weeks in July!) so you know, anything is possible. They say start applying early, but sometimes opportunities arise at the last minute…
I recently read this Medium article titled ‘I’m Done Trying to Save the World’ by Devon Price, which mainly details their experiences in campaign activism for the environment/conservation, LGBTQ equality and shutting down a solitary confinement centre, and contrasting it with their sister’s work at school in creating a safe and just environment for all students. They end it by concluding that all their previous work in political activism counted for less than the setting up of a good local environment, countering racist comments by relatives or reassuring distressed youths.
A friend of mine sent me the article, telling me it reminded her of me. I’m not too sure why – because I’m seen as someone who tries to ‘save the world’, and that I might commiserate with the feelings of Devon? I do/have not engaged with the high-level of activism that they had, but I can empathise with the feeling of burnout and insignificance. On reading the article however, I’m left with a slightly uncomfortable feeling over the framing of the issues – one, about ‘saving the world’; two, about individual choice.
Apart from the fact that the world does not need saving, but rather it is the environment we humans are accustomed to living in that is being threatened by climate breakdown and biodiversity loss, the constant framing of environmental issues as being about ‘saving the world’ prematurely closes off discussion. Questions such as whether the proposed solution does what it’s intended to, whether they are appropriate for the context, or if they are even necessary are left out, when we talk about ‘saving the world’ – because of course, we want to do good and ‘save the world’.
As the comic above illustrates, so many environmental movements revolve around individual choice. To buy a more environmentally friendly or ethical product, or to recycle more, or to drive less etc. Yet while all these individual actions are laudable in themselves, they are no where near the scale needed to address the very large problem we are facing. [Here is a web comic that illustrates the point.] It is global political and economic policies (driven largely by western/American institutions) that are raiding the earth of its natural resources, on which we are completely reliant on whether directly or indirectly. These same policies are also systematically wiping out any resistance they face in the form of environmental guardians, the Indigenous peoples whose lives are most closely tied with their land.
Individually, there may be little we can achieve. Collectively though, we can affect policies for a better world, whether for the environment or for people, especially those of us who are privileged and have more of a voice in public spaces. Campaigning and lobbying is not for everyone, it takes an immense amount of energy and time to be able to do all that, and does not suit everyone’s personalities. But to stay silent is not an option, if what we want is a more equitable, more just, more beautiful world to live in.
There is no silver bullet or panacea when it comes to solving large-scale, globalised systemic issues. Technological fixes are appealing (like devices to clean up plastic pollution or geoengineering to cool down the planet) because it suggests we can continue living our lives as we have lived them for the last 50 years or so without drastic changes to our political economy. But the social and environmental/ecological problems we face now distill down to issues about power (differences) and recognition of equality among all humans (not just the politically and economically privileged), and without addressing these, technology only gets abused. So who’s trying to save the world? I’d think that we all need to do better in any capacity we can to forge a fairer, safer world for every living being on this planet we all share. And especially push for the rich and privileged who caused most of the problems to take responsibility.
I’ve been wanting to write more (as I’ve been saying in my previous posts…) but while the collision of inspiration and time to write is one stumbling block, the bigger problem is that of inferiority complex. That many people more eloquent than me have written aplenty on things I muse and want to write about, and my writings contribute little. Or that I can’t write or express myself well enough anyway. But enough with this inertia, I just have to develop a thicker skin and write, for whoever and whatever. Though I am mainly writing to develop my opinion and share my thoughts.
The topic of this post is not about writing though, but more about “bringing down the system”. Having kicked the Facebook habit, more of my time is spent scrolling on Twitter instead, a feed littered with mostly conservation/nature/STEM issues/opinions, but also social justice, politics and other perspectives (that mostly work towards realising a just society living within planetary boundaries). I have definitely noticed a ‘leftward’ transition in myself, over this past year of bringing together perspectives and ideas on justice, history and decolonisation, and in attempting to understand the present hegemony of the neoliberal capitalist globalised system we live in.
And it’s only with this firmly embedded realisation that capitalism is deeply flawed and any (progressive, socially/environmentally ‘desirable’) proposal that doesn’t endeavour to dismantle it will never be able succeed, that I’ve really adopted a critical eye in what I’m reading (or given to absorb). And more pertinently, it’s not just ‘capitalism’, as an abstract economic theory, that is problematic, but that it is actively enforced through American imperialism (through institutions like the World Bank, World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund etc.) and military might (check out John Pilger’s The War on Democracy).
It starts to sound like a conspiracy theory, or that perhaps I’m just super paranoid, but when you read up on it and start educating yourself (not through the mainstream), you realise it is all true. And that’s when I started feeling highly skeptical when I see people talk about issues and propose solutions (that I would have wholeheartedly agree and be on board with previously). For example, I was reading Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World, which talks about universal basic income, the case for working fewer hours etc – which are all proposals that the Degrowth movement advocates for. I half agree with what he proposes, but it stands in sharp contrast to Jason Hickel’s The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions [Highly, highly recommended. Everyone should read it!]. Hickel actually addresses root problems and lays it all out quite simply and starkly, while Bregman seems to skim around these prickly issues and most of all fails to acknowledge the highly uneven global playing field between the Global North and the Global South.
It seems to me that if we fail to see this point as being foremost important on any agenda that claims to be building a better world for human and non-human beings, then it will continue to perpetuate injustice and inequalities even if that is not the intention. And if we don’t realise what we are really up against, then any solution will likely fall short of its mark.
When we think of ‘van life’ and in this modern age, ‘digital nomads’, we sometimes forget that nomadic living is as old a concept as life itself, with migrations centred around seasons. Living in a van or caravan now is associated with either climbing ‘dirtbags’ who don’t work, Roma gypsies who are often also perceived as economically unproductive, or various other societally undesirable forms of vagrants, or on the other end of the scale, millennial hipsters living the digital nomad, Instagram-worthy life or middle-class retirees.
These perceptions are something I’ve been struggling with, realising my privilege in being able to live this life but not wanting to perpetuate or abuse it. As well as the growing contradiction between previous generations of van-lifers choosing this lifestyle as a way of escaping societal/economic pressures (cue Christopher McCandless), and the present ability to continue working to support this lifestyle through mobile wi-fi and laptops, and so further perpetuating and expanding the spheres of capitalism.
Nonetheless, in spite of all my self-inflicted doubts and insecurities, this has been very much a lesson in the value of labour and skills, and in being very aware of our consumption and production. The whole conversion process – stripping it down, cleaning it out, cutting a hole in the roof for a stealthy window/ventilation (thanks to Omar’s friend James for lending an angle grinder), putting in timber battens, insulating and sealing the insulation with a vapour barrier, putting in the floor and ceiling, building the bed frame (with help from Omar’s friend Jethro), kitchen, dry toilet and cabinets, making the bed mattress covers, doing the electric wiring, plumbing for sink and gas for hobs – was a really interesting and eye-opening process, particularly for someone like me with very little prior DIY experience.
It took about a month and a half from purchasing the van to setting off, with time in between also spent on PhD applications, and only cost about £1300+ at the end. I realised there’s an impossible trinity of budget, rapid, and good workmanship – we ended up compromising between making/having well-made/reliable items and budget, but doing things yourself really saves a lot of money. A pre-made kitchen set (sink, hob, tap and cupboard space) would have cost upwards of £300-400, and we made ours for about £120 with the most expensive purchase being the gas hobs. Similarly, the toilet cost us less than £50 (most expensive item being a urine diverter which separates pee from poo and hence makes our waste smell less, not require water and easy to dispose of) instead of £200 for a ready-made set. Beyond wishing we installed latches on cupboard doors instead of just catches (been quite a few incidences where stuff fell out while driving. Having dark soya sauce all over the floor isn’t too good…), everything’s been more or less working well and up to expectations.
Having to manage electricity (the leisure battery charges while driving but we also have a supplementary solar panel courtesy of James) and especially water supply makes us very conscious of our consumption. As a consequence of highly effective water-saving campaigns in Singapore, I have always been frugal with water use, especially with dish-washing. In the van, it’s taken to the next level, and we usually manage to wash up with about <2 litres of water – our grey water container is 5l.
All in all, the convenience and mobility of living in a home that is well, mobile, is pretty good, but the fuel consumption (though less than flying, which I’m trying to reduce) and ultimately privilege of this lifestyle weighs on my conscience. Also, while nomadic living may have had a long history, it’s usually done in larger family groups or tribes, and the lack of community embedded-ness is wearing in this lifestyle.
It’s been a few months since my last post, or since any real updates. I’ve been wanting this site to be one with more formal writings than its earlier reincarnations, but perhaps that only comes with stability in life. Since finishing my previous work as a research assistant at NTU last May, I’ve been doing not very much in capitalist productive terms, being ‘jobless’ or ‘unemployed’ so to speak. Yet why do we have to ascribe these states of being with such negativity, when in times past, spending time seeking meaning in life and of existence and pursuing a better self would have entailed just the same…?
I’ve been spending time engaging more with a different literature, opening myself up to a pluriverse of world views, trying to school myself in fields that hold more similar positions and values to mine. Understanding justice, social and environmental, what a better life means, how economics need to and can be embedded within an environmental and social framing, and most of all, what do I want to do next given my interests and my skills. Research is what I think I do best, and what I greatly enjoy, and I do like statistics and data processing, spatial analysis and R. Trying to figure out what PhD topic could marry my growing interests in the social sciences with themes of justice and conviviality and a different kind of (non-market, decolonial) conservation, and those skills is harder. I have applied for a few PhDs, and am still waiting to hear back about funding, but I am increasingly less hopeful about obtaining any.
What happens next remains to be seen, but for now I am on the road, exploring a different lifestyle that is popularly called ‘van life’. More reflections on that later, as well as musings on human and non-human nature, philosophy, ethics, framings, justice, politics etc. Being outside a city (and away from the strong influences of mainstream society) does free up my mind. Plus the many miles on the road which is often spent listening to podcasts (like History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Knowing Animals – in particular, check out the episode featuring Prof Rosaleen Duffy titled War, by Conservation) and articles on political ecology, degrowth and environmental justice (text to speech apps are quite useful).