Thoughts

The next stage of academia: embarking on a PhD

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…

Who’s trying to ‘save the world’?

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’.

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Taken from Twitter @TommySiegel

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.

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Taken from Google images.

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.

Understanding the mammoth task at hand

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.

Van life: labour, frugality and conscious living

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.

The van somewhere near but outside Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido, in the Spanish Pyrenees.

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. 

La furgoneta


On the Road

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).

Our current dystopian reality

Glitzy shop window displaying 3-digits priced fashion and gifts, an inadequately-dressed young woman curled on cardboard in front of it, her sole bag of possessions as a pillow.

The momentary excitement on a child’s face, as it rips open packaging to reveal a £35-priced Disney doll, produced by weary hands paid £0.01 for the work.

A spread of meats, cheeses, sides, wines, desserts, ordered from a catalogue to be delivered to the address, the prime dish fattened by maize grown by a family-verging-on-hunger halfway around the world, maize which replaced their previously diverse polycultures that kept them full and healthy.

Barbed wire fences and walls, separating the haves and have-nots, separating dreams and despair, separating children from caretakers.

Pictures of the Year
Image taken by Kim Kyung Hoon from Reuters. See: http://time.com/5464560/caravan-mexico-border-iconic-photo/


Are we not living in a dystopia, right this very moment? Those who can, who are on the social and economic ladder, able to afford not just basic necessities, but all the accompanying extravagances. Those who cannot, hidden out of sight, invisible even on the news, suffering, scraping by, made to fight between themselves over scraps or words.

We, those that have some, think it is a time to come, a time yet come, a time that might never come. But whether we like it or not, it is here. We live in a world of absurd lived realities, inequalities stretched out on the spectrum to unprecedented dimensions, knowing that each is a direct result of the other. Because in a world that hails the ability to shift costs onto other, lesser, beings, including non-human nature, this is the inevitable outcome. Dystopian fictions written by authors in centuries past have finally come to pass.

Better yet, knowing what we now know, of the consequences of past actions, of the destruction wrought by premeditated extraction, of the revenge of the living world for our trespasses – we are still failing to act. Little effect though it would probably have anyway had it passed, the failure of all nations on this earth to agree that we, global humanity, need to do something different to how we, minority of the world population, have been operating particularly in the last few decades, means that in all likelihood, our current dystopian reality will just get worse.

As the climate gets more unpredictable, with more frequent, more severe, more unstable weather, the environmental stresses are exacerbated, social resilience further eroded. Failure to grow crops, obtain drinking water, secure a shelter, earn a living will make ‘status quo’, ‘Business As Usual’ impossible. And so, things will change, and current predictions based on linear projections will not hold true. Which path would we go down?

Some, the more environmentally-inclined, the more aware and well-read, the ones who believe in the superiority and ability of (wo)mankind to pull through adversities, will imagine a world like the same, but cleaner and greener. Powered by clean, renewable energy. A sea of solar panels over deserts, a field of wind turbines over seas. “The science and technology is available, we are just lacking political will,” they say. Everyone will be wearing green clothes, made of bamboo, hemp, or other renewable, sustainable products. Everyone will be bringing their reusable cups for certified-sustainable-and-fair-trade coffee. Everyone will be consuming sustainable food, more vegetables, locally/organically grown, lab-grown meat and food made from solar-powered, hydrogen-eating bacteria, cricket burgers with chips. Food will be grown in buildings, buildings will be covered in greenery, it will be a sustainable, smart world we live in.

Others, the more critical and politically-socially-aware, the more radical and extreme, the ones who understand the structural, underlying causes of all these symptoms that are manifesting now, will imagine a world vastly different, almost unthinkable. Not just ‘greener’, but also equitable. Renewable energy, distributed to peoples, powering considerably reduced demand for energy. Simplicity, sufficiency, conviviality underpinning every consumption choice, made easier by changes to current institutions. No need to make money for the sake of making money. No need to save money for the sake of having more money. Radical democracy, municipal autonomy, nutritious food sufficiency through regional trading, closer consumer-producer relations. A systemic transformation of our current political and economic system resulting in a world that is more equitable, more resilient to the impending destructions of climate breakdown while reducing the actual inputs contributing to climate breakdown.

Or, perhaps more realistically, us barrelling down the path to 3, 4 or more ˚C of planet warming, along with more protectionism and far-right sentiments, increasing dehumanisation of other peoples. Ending with a world like ruled by countries like Panem, in Hunger Games, or a world like that in Mortal Engines or more realistically, like Children of Men (the film) with its tightened borders and harsh treatment of refugees, less global infertility (as of now).

We are living in a dystopia, whether we know it or not, where some have at the expense of the many. Those who have are still a considerable number, including you and me, but will slowly dwindle, if we continue down our current path, eventually resulting in stark, drastic inequalities and a ravaged, unliveable environment. If we take reformist actions, pursuing green growth and smart cities, we might put that ending off a few years, maybe decades, while deluding ourselves and perpetuating current dystopian realities. If we dare imagine a different world and take radical action against current hegemonic powers in political, economic, social institutions, then perhaps, a different outcome for humanity could be reached.


For a comprehensive, very readable understanding of climate change, its past, present and future, check out Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik’s The Memory We Could Be.

For an understanding of what radical change could look like, check out the Degrowth movement.

If you’ve not heard of the Extinction Rebellion, it’s worth checking out too.

Degrowth Summer School 2018 – two weeks of conviviality, decolonising knowledge and expanding imaginaries

I had the fortune of attending the Summer School on Degrowth and Environmental Justice from 24 June to 6 July 2018, which has introduced me to a subtlety yet also radically different lens to understand and examine the world. Themed ‘Making sense by democracy, non-violence, and conviviality’, the two weeks of critical learning and discussion was held at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) and at the village of Cerbère, France.

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Group photo of participants and lecturers outside ICTA-UAB’s eco-friendly building. Photo Credit: ICTA-UAB

For me, coming from a natural sciences/ecological background, it was an interesting foray into the social sciences. Words/concepts such as ‘discourses’, ‘pluralism’, ‘ontologies’, and ‘post-‘ (e.g. post-development, post-growth, post-extractivism…) entered my vocabulary and speech, and I realised this critical eye and evaluation of the world was what has been missing in my education thus far.

As with most summer schools, we started off with some ice-breaking activities and introduction. One of them was an adaptation of the usual name game, where a person starts with their name, and the next person repeats it before adding their name, and so on. Here, after saying our name, we also had to add something that we wished would disappear from our world, and there were responses like ‘cars’, ‘capitalism’, ‘deforestation’, ‘extractivism’, and ‘monocultures’… A pretty interesting start to the summer school, exercising our imagination to envision a different world, and a prelude of what was to come.

Over the next few days, we had lectures on democracy, environmental justice, equality, economics, ecology, feminism and technology, all with the idea of building a better world that’s not based on economic growth, and one that is more just and equitable. According to members of Research & Degrowth, the academic-activist association that organised this summer school, “[s]ustainable degrowth is a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions.” It is rather an all-encompassing term, representing an idea (that this relentless obsessive pursuit of economic growth has to stop) but with multiple facets, pathways and realisations.

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The snail is usually associated with the degrowth movement, as a symbol (I think!) that degrowth is not trying to put ‘an elephant on a diet’, but simply be different. Image taken from: https://entitleblog.org/2016/10/25/naming-the-radical-movement-for-alternative-economics-d-e-growth/

Economic growth-at-all-cost has wreaked tremendous havoc on individuals, society and the environment, costs that are apparent to us now in the mental health crisis, increasing inequality, and climate change/habitat destruction from extraction and cash-crop monocultures. Recognising the debilitating effects of neoliberal capitalism, and wanting to replace it with a completely different political-economic-social model, degrowth lies mainly at the intersection of two academic fields, ecological economics and political ecology. As opposed to environmental economics, which attempts to internalise externalities in the market economy, ecological economists base the economy firmly within the environment and ground their measurements in biophysical and social metabolic flows of the economy, while political ecology examines power structures in ecological processes that shape human-environment interactions, investigating who has access to and control over natural resources.

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Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era is a useful resource to get started on degrowth ideas. Image taken from: https://vocabulary.degrowth.org

It is too much to expand on each of the lectures and discussions we had, so I will just highlight my main takeaways. Having an academic background in ecology/conservation, I thought I understood the issues of natural resource extraction and habitat destruction fairly well. My training had focused my attention on issues like where destruction was happening, using satellite imagery and monitoring, who/how it was done, using statistical or other kinds of models, where were the best cost-benefit locations for conservation etc. What it missed out on though, was the deeper, broader, political-economic contexts for all the environmental havoc that was being wreaked. The younger, more naïve Jocelyne read What is Conservation Biology by Michael Soulé (1985) and thought she had a good grasp of what conservation was about and stood for 😳. It’s been a radically different path I’ve been on since, immersing myself in texts from disciplines that are all engaging with different facets/angles/scales of natural resource extraction and human-nature/human-human relations – I will probably write a separate post on this.

So, here’s a quick list of ideas/concepts that have stuck in my head since:

  1. The concept of environmental justice, the links between natural resource extraction-based and debt-fuelled economies (thanks to the structural adjustment programmes of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, among others), the empowering of local/indigenous communities to protect their rights to resources and livelihood, the ecological debt owed from the ‘global north’ to the ‘global south’
  2. The decolonisation of the mind, allowing ideas and ways from ‘global south’ to flourish without interference from westernised models of development, to develop their own economies that suit their culture and history, possibilities of a different way of life like Sumac Kawsay Buen Vivir in South America, or eco-swaraj in India.
  3. The illusion of scarcity (we should redistribute whatever little we produce to be shared equally such that everyone feels like we have enough) and myth of tragedy of the commons, ‘use’ values vs ‘exchange’ values, limited and diffuse renewable energy sources demanding lower energy consumption and material production (as opposed to fossil fuels)
  4. The need for everyone to be an active citizen, for collective action (not just individual choices) to make political changes. The concept of participatory democracy where everyone takes part in the decision-making process (as opposed to the current dominant representative democracy where we elect somebody to speak on our behalves) – this reminded me of Ent moots, particularly in the amount of time it takes!
  5. The concept of social metabolism, using material flow/energy accounting to examine our economy/production-consumption – seemed to me a really different yet necessary way of examining our society.
  6. Feminism means a lot of different things to different people and is really complicated (sorry I’m not doing this topic much justice but honestly speaking, most of it was lost on me, I’ll need more time to digest these works), but it gives us different perspectives to look at issues, highlights inequalities such as unpaid-for care work that is vital to social reproduction
  7. Most of all, that we should stop looking for a silver bullet, or a panacea. But embrace pluralism and diversity, and what we need is concerted effort at all levels from all peoples.

There was much more that was covered over the two weeks, including lectures on technology and artificial intelligence, and activism. And of course, in the ensuing months, I’ve just been absorbing a whole new world of literature, while trying to figure out what next (for a PhD). I think I’m coming to a stage of understanding, and hopefully more engagement will come.

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View of Collserola Parc from InOut hostel in Barcelona

Locations and logistics (some brief notes)

The first week was in Barcelona, with sessions mostly conducted at ICTA-UAB, though we had a few ‘field’ sessions too – one day of lectures conducted at Can Masdeu and another half day of walking tour of cooperatives around the city. ICTA-UAB is not near the city centre, but half an hour FGC (regional train, not local train) ride away from Plaça Catalunya. Fairly accessible, and most of the participants were staying at the InOut Hostel, located within the Parc Natural de la Serra de Collserola, which is in between ICTA-UAB and the city centre. The park has an interesting history, with community-led efforts to preserve it and prevent further development/gentrification and their community agroecological garden. The hostel was also an interesting experience; it is ‘a non-profit organization whose mission is the integration of people with disabilities, which form the professional staff who work there’. We’ve overheard some people complaining about the inadequate service provided by the staff, but honestly I think they’re just being fussy. The kitchen for our use was insufficiently equipped (chatted with a long-time visitor to the hostel that it used to be better but they refurbished it and all the useful equipment had disappeared) and we had to share the seating/eating spaces with paying guests (since the hostel also functioned as a event space) – so that was less great. And though the hostel is up on the hill, it’s not too much of an effort, just perhaps of a surprise/shock if you were unprepared.

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Compost toilet with a view at Can Masdeu

Can Masdeu is a pretty cool social project, we had our day of ecological lectures there, quite fittingly. Located within the same Collserola park but a different area, it used to be a leper hospital but fell into disuse for ~50 years, and has been squatted since 2001. The squatters were involved in a court battle and non-violently resisted an eviction, and are now still squatting there (occupying a space without the legal right), running a social centre with various events particularly in the summer and a community garden. The community practices consensus-based decision-making and ecological living, and it was really interesting being able to visit such a community and experience some aspects of it. We had communal locally-sourced dinner there, kindly prepared by the community, for which we contributed some amount of money. And we could buy their home-brewed beers too!

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Legit home-brewed beer with its own label (apologies for the bluriness)

The second week was held at Can Decreix, in the French village of Cerbere, just across the border with Spain along the coast. Intentionally chosen to overlook a fairly big train station instead of the sea, Can Decreix represents a real-life experiment of ecological, simple, degrowth living. It is a bit of a walk up a hill, which posed problems to our group of participants as we had some with mobility difficulties – a point many in our group felt was exclusionary about a movement that is supposed to be inclusive and welcoming to all. I’m not sure how the organisers will react to that comment for future events, but apart from accessibility issues, Can Decreix was refreshing for me to see how some people could live. We used solar ovens to bake our bread, washing up was done in a hot-water-for-dirty-dishes -> rain-water-for-scrubbing-with-ash -> tap-water-with-a-splash-of-vinegar-to-kill-germs method, urine was separated from poop for watering plants and making compost respectively, and a fair amount of wild plants (including seaweed collected from the shore) was included in our diets. Oh and there was a cycle-powered washing machine, using again, ash (soap?) instead of detergent.

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Steps leading up to Can Decreix. There’s also a vehicle-accessible road from the back, though cars aren’t really a thing with degrowth.

We didn’t actually stay at Can Decreix, though the volunteers who arrived a few weeks before us to prep the place did (much thanks to them, without whom we couldn’t have been there!). The participants were split between a hostel (where you need to bring your own sheets) and a hotel (Hotel Belvedere, really more of a service apartment, with 4-6 in each apartment which had hobs). Lectures were also split between Hotel Belvedere and another hotel in the village, which had rooms large enough to accommodate our group, so really it was only meals and chill time that we spent at Can Decreix.

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Solar ovens with bread dough left inside. Note how they’re facing different directions as a timer! Vineyard from which raisins and wines are made in the background.

The two weeks were very well-spent, and I think, no where else will I be able to find a group of such different yet like-minded people, bonded by a shared desire for a fairer and sufficiency-living world. It’s not often that a group of ~30 people makes it a point that everyone should have a chance to speak, inviting more quiet participants to voice their opinions, rather than the usual talking over/at each other. To know that there are others out there who are trying to make real, positive changes in the system gives me hope for our collective future, and I’m glad I’ve stumbled across the post-growth/degrowth community. The degrowth summer school was a vital starting point in this journey, one that will probably last my lifetime.

For more general reading on degrowth, check out the following articles:

Degrowth considered

Beyond growth

Degrowth: closing the global wealth divide

Scientists warn the UN of capitalism’s imminent demise

Motivations and migrations.

It’s been two months since I passed through the immigration counters of Changi Airport in Singapore, with the intention of not being back in a while. I had hoped to write this then, but the travelling and learning I was embarking on at that point were distracting me from settling and distilling some coherent thoughts. I don’t quite want to label this departure as an emigration, as a leaving ‘for good’, mainly because I have very few concrete plans on where I intend to be, but everyone, everywhere, seem to demand concrete answers. Particularly at border control in other countries you are trying to enter. It’s strange how easily and widely accepted it is that one needs a passport to cross into another country, since hard national borders are relatively new (compared to the beginnings of civilisation), and the introduction of passports across the world even more recent (after WWI). Without losing my cultural roots and influences of my childhood upbringing, I’m increasingly preferring to move away from nationalism and unwarranted patriotism (nobody got to choose where they wanted to be born), reminding myself not to ask “where are you from?” as the first (or second) question upon meeting someone new.

This line of thinking has been slowly developing over the past year, as can be seen in my previous posts about business, being cynical over green-washed sustainability, and economic growth and the environment. My ideas and thoughts are still constantly changing, evolving and being shaped by the new information I’m absorbing – I haven’t quite felt so ‘transformed’ since a decade ago perhaps, when I ‘discovered’ ecology. Where I used to partake in taking scenic photographs and inspiring landscapes, and concomitantly upload it onto social media, I now find that I cannot bring myself to do the same (I still take photos, for keepsakes, but no longer or rarely upload them for public consumption) – because it adds to this systemic portrayal of what a ‘good life’ is, idealises travel to ‘remote’ and ‘untouched’ places, contributes to mental health issues and global demand for more travel (i.e. CO2 emissions) and the unintended negative side effects of increased tourism.

Similarly, I find that my idea of ‘norm’ has shifted away from most peoples’ ideas of ‘norm’, that I’m starting to question what’s usually taken for granted as accepted or the standard to pursue, like is it necessarily good to own a (usually urban) property? While this thread of thought still has its circles, I don’t want to end up too radical to be able to connect or converse with the crowd. Part of the reason for moving ‘abroad’ (from Singapore), was to be able to at least find some people who share similar views/thoughts, to have a community that holds the same values and vision. To not be forced to conform, through the physical and mental limits of the Singaporean system. In this sense, I know I am very privileged to be able to ‘escape’ and give myself the opportunity to live differently.

Since finishing my work contract with NTU, I’ve been taking the time to think, read, absorb and try to consolidate the new learning, which should culminate in a few posts in the near future. It’s been good, having this freedom to be, and also the freedom arising from lacking any plans (of where to be, of what to do). While usually construed as laziness or ‘being picky’ (about jobs) by some, it’s romanticised by others, usually from my generation. And I do want to avoid any romanticisation about having this freedom, because it does also comes along with uncertainty over the future and associated anxieties, the worries of having to sustain oneself in a monetised economy without an income (and being able to get into countries which usually prefer the wealthy), and most of all the fears of inertia. Being located in a region with green spaces and (free) things to do outdoors, it becomes very easy to go with the flow of just doing and occupying time, without being constructive.

There is much to do for now, yet also very little. I feel the urgency of having to internalise the paradigm shift that has occurred/is occurring within me, of having to chart a course for myself, of having to address the global human inequality and environmental devastation by tackling the economic growth imperative. Some part of me believes it is all too late, that we will suffer the consequences of inaction by our elders (heatwaves and droughts, wildfires and floods, vanishing wildlife and a polluted earth), and the continuing complicity of our generation through ignorance (whether systematically planned or not). But I suppose there’s no point giving it all up to the doom of human civilisation, and we can still, in many ways, reduce the damage we are wrecking, so the earth and nature has a better chance of pulling through.

Leaving Singapore, the tiny island nation city state that managed to succeed economically, I will miss the little patches of trees that persist (for now) amidst the high-rises, the warm (though not clear) seas, the hawker centres, and volunteering with the NGO transient workers count too. There is very little to be said about missing the land, when the cityscape changes so quickly and often – most cities are interchangeable, and have similar structures and lifestyles. But most of all, what I will miss the least, the reason for leaving really, is being part of a rather insular, economic-growth-oriented society. Yet who knows what the future of Singapore will hold; being rather pragmatic, perhaps one day things Singapore will truly be the living example of a society that thrives without wreaking environmental destruction (in other places), without suppressing people’s needs and freedoms, without pursuing economic growth at all costs.

To ‘protect’ our planet earth, we need to pursue degrowth

We’ve just celebrated Earth Day not long ago, and while it’s a good time to share a pretty picture and an inspiring message, it’s also a good time to think about what we (as a collective human race) are doing about one of the biggest challenges of our age – declining biodiversity and planet health. There are many environmental issues, and while they subsisted on the fringes in the past, they’re increasingly discussed in the mainstream now, not least because of climate change and plastic pollution. Yet, they are still far removed from being considered as ‘political’ issues, and are discussed as though they are rodents on an island that need to be eradicated; an isolated problem that can be dealt with through a targeted solution. I don’t intend to belittle the efforts, in fact my fullest respect and admiration to the people who achieved this conservation success and provided some optimism for the rest of us. Rather, I just wanted to point out that most of the problems (ecological and social) we now face today are all interlinked particularly in their root cause, and what we, as ecologists, environmentalists, conservationists, nature-lovers, people who care about other people (is there a specific term for what should be innate in us all?) etc, should be doing, is talking more and doing more about it. And that root cause is indubitably, Capitalism and the relentless pursuit of economic growth.

When I started becoming aware of biodiversity conservation and environmental issues just after finishing junior college (17-18 yo), I understood it mainly from a conservation vs. urban development perspective in Singapore. My knowledge and understanding then slowly grew to encompass the John Muir wilderness movement in America in the latter part of the 19th century, reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and realising how that took the form of ‘fortress conservation’ that removed indigenous people to ‘protect’ nature. That being unacceptable now, conservation then moved towards finding equitable solutions for humans and nature (local/community based conservation) and developing economic tools (valuing nature through ecosystem services). While that’s good and important, particularly engaging with local stakeholders and understanding their perceptions, rarely do we even mention the underlying series of events that have led to the state we’re in.

In trying to understand the flagrant habitat destruction (especially in the tropics), or pollution (whether air, soil or water), or biodiversity loss, we talk about underlying drivers, like governmental policies and economic incentives. Seldom though, do we question this seemingly global imperative for economic growth and efficiency that drive these policies and incentives. Nor do we ask when was it that this became the norm across all countries and societies, and hailed as progress. If we truly want to uncover how this stage was set, we have to go back centuries, and cover concepts such as colonialism, white supremacy, american imperialism, the art of ‘public relations’… We need to think about how multinational corporations, advertising, cheap goods, exploited labourers, displaced and/or oppressed peoples, shift of framing from citizens to consumers, propaganda, partial media, capitalism, suppression of communism (through Vietnam war and Cuban war for e.g.), debt and loans are all linked – and how they collectively work to dis-empower communities, prevent public expression of dissent, and condition us to accept our current reality as the only reality. I’ve been doing a lot more reading and understanding of these aspects in the past year, trying to accommodate these revelations into my world view.

These ideas and concepts are radical and push one away from the mainstream, and if not delivered well and coherently, could just be brushed aside as conspiracy theories. But I am increasingly seeing the truth and inter-connectedness between all these superficially vastly different issues, and am also seeing how different groups fighting for their own rights and justice – women’s, LGBT+, environmental, indigenous, disabled and other marginalised groups – need to come together and collectively fight against the current system that entrenches these inequalities.

I had always been taught to think that environmental protection comes after economic growth, that conservation is a triage because we have scarce resources and need to pick our battles, that if we don’t go with the (corporate) flow, we’ll just lose everything. Protecting intact natural areas, running species recovery programmes, and valuing our natural capital; switching to more energy efficient options, choosing more ‘sustainable’ options and using more reusables instead of disposables. They all have their part to play in stemming the decline, and that was what I thought all conservation stood for – trying to reduce the rate of loss and degradation of the natural world. Until I realised that I was missing the forest for the trees.

Our lives have become overrun by corporations driving the engine of capitalism through consumerism. From the building of malls (private property) that takes away public common space (hearteningly enough people get around it by just picnicking in the little green spaces tucked around buildings), to high rents forcing out small independents and increasing the reach of huge corporations and chains, to relentless advertising telling us that we need this latest gadget or fashion to project the right image of a successful and rich consumer. Meanwhile, ecologists and conservationists have been siloed into a box where we do triage and prioritisation plans, educational and outreach roadshows that remind society of our natural heritage and their reliance on a functioning ecosystem and campaigning against one ‘development’ project or another extractive industry, while still feeding the broken system (though some less than others).

We cannot talk about sustainability in the same breath as continued economic growth. Those who imagine a future where technology has freed us all from the problems of environmental devastation and those who talk about our current reality as progress speak from privileged positions that fail to take into account actual realities. This isn’t a view just espoused by ‘sustainable’ businesses and cities that envision a ‘sustainable’ future; it’s also a view embodied in academia, with this Sanderson et al. (2018) paper on achieving a tranformative breakthrough moment for biodiversity conservation based on modern urban lifestyles. I cannot write as eloquently on this topic as others can, so this is a great article for anyone who thinks that ecomodernism (“an environmental philosophy which argues that humans can protect nature by using technology to “decouple” anthropogenic impacts from the natural world” – Wiki) is the way forward.

What can we, as normal citizens, do then? We need to start taking back from corporations and decreasing their power, while empowering local communities. We can take up Mark Boyle’s 3Rs: Resist, Revolt and Rewild. Staying on this high-speed neoliberal capitalist train will lead us to our doom; the tracks will halt at some point, we just don’t know when. It is time to start thinking of alternative ways of living that is less reliant on the global economic system, time to start considering a future without economic growth, time to start living as we should on a finite and shared planet Earth.

Some further food for thought:
Socialism Without Growth – An academic paper I came across randomly that started this whole journey (not open access unfortunately)

In Defense of Degrowth – the next bit of fairly light reading (by the same author) which really cemented the whole degrowth idea for me (free e-book)

Prosperity Without Growth – very nice, easy reading about human well-being and the false illusion that we need growth to achieve it (not free but worth it)

Doughnut Economics – a relatively new book that talks about these concepts from an economist’s perspective (not free but also worth it)

And this great rap that states very simply and beautifully all that’s wrong now.

 

Exploring climbing in Yunnan

Climbing in Yangshuo, China, is well-known, but less so in Yunnan (云南). With a straight flight to Kunming to Singapore (on SilkAir, 4 hours) and much to climb around the capital city itself, we headed there for 10 days to check out the climbs (4 to 14 January 2018).

Kunming (昆明) is known as the Spring City, because the weather is fairly mild all year round, and it’s possible to climb any time of the year, even in the dead of winter. The start of our trip was quite nice and sunny, with a few t-shirt days, but towards the end it got cloudy and cold and fingers were cold (though still passably climb-able) on the rock.

Information on climbing around Yunnan is fairly sparse on the internet, at least on English websites. ClimbChina has a good overview of where there’s climbing in China – in Yunnan province, it can probably be divided to two areas, around Kunming (within city limits and in Fumin) and around Dali and Lijiang. So headed there on the little information we could find online (thecrag, mountainproject, this 2010 article and this lady’s blogpost), we tried to make our way to the crags. Many of the websites are outdated (e.g. saying that RedPoint climbing gym is the biggest gym around and where to go to get info, when it’s apparently closed down, or that kunmingrock.com has updated topo when it really doesn’t have much info)

Western Hills (within Kunming city limits)

We went to a local gym in Kunming (Now climbing) to try and find more information, and was told that we could probably spend a day or two at Western Hills (西山), while still staying in the city, and about a week at Fumin. I also got added to the WeChat group chat for climbing in Kunming, but got locked out of my WeChat account due to ‘suspicious activities’ so never really managed to use it.

We found topo about Western Hills from mountainproject (for the Western Hills escarpment), and so thought we could check it out the next day. It turns out that information online from 2005 really isn’t reliable. A new-ish subway line had been built and one can now take line 3 to Western Hills (end of the line), which was what we did. From there, we were to have made our way to the Dragon Gate shrines (龙门)and go down a flight of stairs (Thousand Steps Cliff 千步崖) before embarking on a dirt path that winds around the hill to the base of the crags. Finding out that we now need to pay for a tourist bus to a mid-point where there’s also a cable-car station, then an entrance fee and another transport fee to get to that Thousand Steps, we decided to go along the base of the hill to the bottom of those stairs and walk up most of it to get to the approach path instead. After maybe an hour or two of bush-whacking with our climbing gear, we finally conceded that there were no bolts and no climbing around the area and headed back. Later on, we met a local climber in Fumin who told us that climbing around that area is now forbidden, and the climbing in Western Hills is actually somewhere near the cable-car station (probably the Dragon Gate village crags?).

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Abandoned crag at Western Hills

Top Tip: Don’t trust online info too much, especially if it was posted ages ago. Searching for information in Mandarin Chinese on baidu.com also did not reveal better info, though that might be due to my limited language abilities.

Fumin canyon

The major sport climbing area is near a smaller town called Fumin (富民) located Northwest of Kunming. There are plenty of coaches there from the North West Bus Station (西北部汽车客运站). Each trip costs CNY11, takes about 30-40 minutes depending on traffic, and the coach leaves when it’s full.

We could stay in Fumin if we wanted, and commute to the crags everyday (about 10-15 minutes by taxi/minibus/motorised tricycle, costing about CNY20, 10 or 5 supposedly respectively). However we wanted to stay in the village and walk there, so we took a cab to Lannitian (烂泥田). There is no proper accommodation in the village, we just wandered up the road asking if any family had a room spare to rent out. Thankfully we found a family who would take us on board, and we ended up paying CNY150/day for an ensuite room and all meals (though we usually only have two in a day) for two people (for reference, a double room in an average hotel costs about CNY100-120 in Fumin).

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The village of Lan Ni Tian

There are kinda four main climbing areas:

1. Beside the river on the East bank (Orange face, Cave crag?, Splash wall) is an easy access climbing area, with two access routes,

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Orange face, splash wall (and maybe a few others?) located right beside the river/road

2. Old Red Rock (including Rainbow wall and Doug’s wall) is the major climbing area, with one access route via Lannitian village,

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Huge outcrop of Old Red Rock, Rainbow wall and Doug’s wall

3. Also beside the river but further upstream (or further down the road from Fumin) there’s Weeping wall and Just Go wall

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Weeping wall

4. Eye cave, located slightly above the river on the West bank with a different access route.

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Eye cave

Access to each of the climbing areas

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An attempt at annotating the various crags and access routes. Image taken from Google, though the roads clearly don’t align with the satellite image.

Most of the climbing is on the eastern bank of the river, so you’ll have to cross either the bridges or the dam to access, cos the road is on the other side of the river.

  1. Splash wall and the others beside it are the easiest to access by far, and so the rocks there are more polished. Apparently, climbers also camp at the Orange face crag cos there’s a flat bit of grass right there.

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The dam to access the crags.

The dam is closest to the crags, but can only be accessed when the river is not (over)flowing. You then have to walk along some concrete dividers to get to the crags.

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Concrete divider between the river and a little canal

When the dam is impassable, the crags can still be access by crossing the bridge at LanNiTian village and walking along the same concrete dividers.

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The village bridge, the concrete dividers and the vegetables villagers grow

 

2. To get to the huge outcrop also known widely to the locals (老红岩), one has to actually enter the village via the bridge, then turn on to a dirt path which somewhat follows the river, albeit higher up.

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Entrance of access to Old Red Rock

The path is quite obvious until a slightly obscure right turn (the path keeps going straight through and ends up at a bit of a dead end, above the crags). It could be that over winter the grasses had all overgrown the path, it was quite clear that no one had been there for a while.

 

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You’ll know if you’ve made the right right turn cos you see this rock. Then just continue along the much smaller path till you see rocks and bolts

We couldn’t find the approach path to Doug’s Wall though (we attempted, and ended up doing some serious bush-whacking to no avail), and the path to Rainbow Wall (or maybe to the furthest end? Not entirely sure where Old Red Rock stops and Rainbow Wall starts…) was blocked after a point by some very prickly shrubs.

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Path along the base of the crag gets blocked by really thorny bushes.

 

3. Although Weeping wall and Just Go wall are physically located alongside the other crags along the river bank, a small stretch of water between the dam and the crags result in climbers having to walk further down the road (from Fumin) and crossing another bridge (the road going up the hill eventually leading to XinMin village) then backtracking on the riverbank to the crags.

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Bridge leading to XinMin village, but also allowing access to the other crags

 

4. The (only?) crag on the western side of the river is the Eye cave, which entails going up a road past a security post (the security officers got us to write our details in a logbook) then following a dirt path round the side of the mountain.

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The end of the road is marked by this memorial. If you go further up along the road, you come up to a shrine (apparently).

 

The climbs

The rocks in Fumin are still mostly unpolished and very grippy, which is a very nice change from the usual. While we were there, the sun shines on the Western side from about 10am and on the Eastern side only from about 12/1pm, and sets about 6+pm. It’s fairly cold out without the sun, though not to the extent that hands freeze on the rock.

Some of the routes are labelled and graded on the rocks at the upper climbing area of Old Red Rock, but quite faintly.

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‘Evo’ route written faintly, with the grade (5.10a) barely visible

I found the routes quite nice, with some very beautiful moves. The exposure however (the wind got quite strong at times) really terrified me and I really only lead climbed 5.9s 😂

The climbing is very varied from crag to crag. The Splash Wall areas are polished and mostly steep, making for rather hard climbing (but short routes, most not more than 20m). The Old Red Rock has a variety of rock faces and climbing styles, some sharp little crimps, some big slopey pinches. The Weeping wall/Just Go wall had some really nice climbing. The Weeping Wall is full of tufas, and there’s one really long and easy fun climb which felt like a 3D puzzle.

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View from the anchor. Anchors (two slings, though there’s also a bolt in the middle) and some of the protection (slings through holes, not bolts) were rather dodgy though.

Just Go wall only has 5 routes, all newly bolted. I really liked the climbs there, fairly easy and not very exposed and not polished either. There’s a little overhang too (One Question, 5.10c) for those who like a little challenge.

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Just Go wall. 

Most of the climbs here are single pitch, though there are a few multipitches. We only did one, the most famous (and the only one properly identified to us), called Fly Me to the Moon. 5-pitch (5.9) with the base starting up the buttress to the right of Eye Cave (just to the left of the two round bushes in the earlier photo depicting Eye Cave). It supposedly ends up on the pavilion at the top of the hill (at least according to online topo), but it actually ends higher up, on the south face.

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We thought the route started somewhere on this face. It’s actually further round the left (south face). You can see the pavilion here at the top of the hill. The descent path is by walking down though, past the pavilion and all the way back down to the road.

We just about had time to at least visit most of the crags and try some climbs. But we definitely did not climb enough, and there’s so much more that can be climbed, would definitely recommend coming here. The second edition of the guidebook is being worked on now by the local climbers, so hopefully with more available information, more people will start checking this place out (though we sometimes get the feeling that perhaps the locals don’t really want too many people to start coming).

So that’s about it for climbing in Kunming, Yunnan. More photos on my Flickr album here. All information true as far as we know it on 14 Jan 2018. We brought a 70m rope, 18 quickdraws, and a small selection of trad gear for protection.