Thoughts

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.

ICTA-UAB Twitter - group photo
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.

elephants
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.

cover.png
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.

41914798710_a2ec6ac9ea_k
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.

31396116528_e3184c0111_k
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!

44358106365_9f871c8317_k
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.

44357140915_77c68ac271_k
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.

30331615847_3b2042d6b6_k
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?).

27918452159_8d60d424c3_z
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).

25823772858_048a72f701_z
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,

24828419397_74180895d7_z
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,

24828418927_3400f876ea_z
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

25823773128_b8548b162a_z
Weeping wall

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

38987318974_cf23089cfb_z
Eye cave
Access to each of the climbing areas
GMaps Lannitian climbing
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.
38988358464_40f140378a_z
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.

38988358654_1844e77296_z
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.

38988359204_83b68d4cc0_z
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.

25824878798_ab0bb244d8_z
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.

 

39697197551_f8136c65c2_z
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.

38799602865_d3f8e99c09_z
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.

38987318894_04c2560574_z
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.

25824878768_01ba8c4a16_z
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.

38799600545_22fd4a83c6_z
‘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.

38987244924_9aac61491b_z
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.

27917242039_913c4227dc_z
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.

39697161981_3ee9e9fb6c_z
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.

To the people with whom we share fleeting moments

It’s the end of the year, and time once again for self-reflection and new year’s resolutions. 2017 has been a bit of a whirlwind year, with more stability in the later months. One year ago, I was in a small village at the end of the Carretera Austral, the main road of Chilean Patagonia, called Villa O’Higgins. A similarly cloudy, gloomy and rainy day (though a lot colder than Singapore), ending with a wonderful shared dinner with those in the hostel, spectacular fireworks (for where we were), a live band and dancing. The immediate objective was just to get over the lake to finish our hike in El Chalten National Park, Argentina, but beyond that, blank pages to be filled. Now I’m back with my family in Singapore and a job with monthly salary.

The year’s been filled with self-searching and reflection, a slow move away from distractions and towards a life I’m at peace with. It culminated in the removal of my Facebook account – though right before deactivating it, I was still looking through my newsfeed, of people asking Facebook friends to comment on their status how they met or their best memories of each other. I was looking through photos I was tagged in, starting from the most recent and moving back in time (I only got to 2012 before I ran out of time – it’s the end of the year now). Photos of my time in the UK as a student, moments of fun, photos of overseas trips, field trips, captured with people I happened to be hanging around. Some I knew a bit, spoke to a bit, maybe even some I was fairly close with at that time. Some I never really knew, just a name, or not even that. Some people I meet on holidays, have a good chat with but nothing more. Some I met at climbing gyms, or hostels. But also always photos of some friends whom I’ll keep for life.

I’m moving off Facebook because it’s a time sinker for me. When I get bored or restless and just want a stream of information until something appears to catch my brain, I scroll through my news feed, though I care little for most posts. I’ve come to realise that friends I know I’ll keep, I’ll make an effort to keep in touch without needing a Facebook reminder, and most people don’t update on Facebook anymore anyway. It’s probably the people I met briefly and shared a few moments with that I’ll miss the most; yet in a world before Facebook, they would also just have remained happy memories, without a means of contacting.

I’ve used Facebook as an information dispenser, posting about environmental or social issues and having discussions. But I’ve come to the stage where I’m reluctant to engage in loaded discussions on social media, and it feels like the few people who might read the barrage of articles I post (on Twitter but routed to Facebook) would probably read about the issues on other platforms anyway. I used to use Facebook as an information gatherer, but not any more – I’ve started perusing news sites.

Still, going through the photos and having flashbacks of my past, I realise how much I’ve changed, even in, or perhaps particularly in the 5 years. Priorities have changed, my understanding of the world has been broadened, and I realised I want to live for myself, a life that I am content with and feel no need for escape. A quieter, slower way of living more thoughtfully and carefully, in line with nature and ecology, without exacerbating the social and economic inequalities that pervade. More blank pages to be filled, but it starts with going off Facebook, and with that, a goodbye to the people with whom I’ve shared fleeting precious moments of joy. I’ll still be thinking of you and wishing you well, even if I don’t post on your wall.

Becoming a ‘green’ Grinch

It was a slow but gradual descent into cynicism and jadedness, starting probably after I finished junior college back in 2010. I had decided that conservation of the environment was my calling, to be a voice for the environment because nature can’t speak for itself, and ecology was my chosen field (as opposed to ‘environmental sciences’) because I wanted to stick with biology as a core. Over the years though, through my gap 1.5 years working at the zoo’s educational department, the biodiversity museum and the national biodiversity centre, then subsequent degree in natural sciences (zoology/ecology/palaeontology) and research masters (deforestation modelling), and now working as a research assistant (forest fire modelling in a coupled-human-natural systems lab), I’ve changed. I’ve come to accept that while understanding biology and ecology is important and fundamental in conservation, the major roadblocks in conservation have little to do with these scientific fundamentals, and more to do with human nature and psychology, our propensity for greed and the capitalist system that’s so ingrained in modern life. The knowledge that I gain and the news that I hear all make it increasingly harder for me to be genuinely happy or excited about ‘green initiatives’.

When I read social media posts now, of ‘sustainable businesses’ or of various ‘green’ initiatives, I can’t help but make a cynical remark, if just to myself. I cannot bring myself to ‘like’ posts for their simplicity in ‘wanting to save the world’ anymore, because while they’re made with good intentions, they’re masking the deeper need for fundamental change. I don’t just want a society that recycles more, or wastes less food, or cuts its plastic bag use – and only if made convenient/mandatory. I don’t want to just live and work in buildings that are rated as ‘green’ and ‘environmentally friendly’, because it uses some renewable energy or has some plants on it – yet the people who live/work there are not conscious of the environment. I don’t want to live in a society in which you can air your views and campaign and get some advertising and outreach – but only if you don’t rock the boat of aspiring for economic prosperity (and/or particularly in Singapore, not rock the political boat either).

I get it. Trying to get urbanites (who interact mostly in the built environment, whose nature/outdoor experiences are usually isolated as holidays, or rather ‘other places’ with pretty scenery to instagram) to be more environmentally and nature-conscious is a difficult job. It is difficult to communicate the intricate interactions between physical surroundings and personal life, environment further afield and daily living, the way the whole world is connected, the earth the sky the land the people the waters. And what more can we do but throw more education and outreach activities and hope that some of them catch?

I’ve started volunteering with a migrant worker NGO, where I still get my sense of “we need to do something about this and change it’ , where I feel a sense of injustice and outrage at how migrant workers are (mis)treated but also a sense of determination and inspiration to make things better. Because I feel like changes here will actually lead to real changes that improve the workers’ lives. I watched a short documentary titled 1987: Untracing the conspiracy which subsequently led to me attending a solidarity for Jolovan Wham event at Hong Lim Park (Singapore’s speakers corner, the only patch of land in the country on which you’re legally allowed to hold a public protest). It’s my first time there as a participant, having never really wanted to be known or associated as an activist. I thought that one should try and work with major organisations to try and change things for the better, and these environmental activists, tree huggers, Greenpeace advocates, were too radical. I wanted to be seen as a moderate, someone reasonable who can see both sides of the coin, but would work for one in a logical, reasonable, scientific manner.

Now though, I feel like I’ve outgrown the de-politicisation of ecology/environmentalism (a term/concept I picked up from reading about the degrowth alternative), and I want more drastic actions. An attack on consumerism and economic growth, rather than the same rhetoric about reducing waste, or recycling goods; a conscious change in lifestyle choice, rather than just picking the easiest or most convenient; a deeper understanding of how we’re connected to this earth we share, rather than just living and passing through this earth as though our lives don’t matter.

I have no (quick) solutions to the very real and tangible problems we have out there, and I do feel that yes every little step is still a move in the right direction, and am glad we have people out there who spend much of their time and effort fighting battles for the good of the environment. I cannot deny though, that I am now increasingly becoming not just a grinch (with the non-environmentally-conscious about environmental/ethical issues), but a grinch of a grinch.

e999841f42e76f81e3b05891fdfb8974
Image taken from pinterest

 

A skeptic’s perspective of the Responsible Business Forum

I recently attended the 6th Responsible Business Forum for Sustainable Development (22-23 Nov 2017), organised by Global Initiatives and UNDP. While not a fan of (big) businesses and the profit-seeking motives they represent, I went because I thought it might be informative, a glimpse into this other world that’s so different from mine, and because I do care for some of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Disclaimer: I went as a staff of NTU on a complimentary ticket provided by Global Initiatives, but thoughts and views presented are mine and (definitely) do not represent those of the institution.

un-sustainable-development-goals_sdgs_new
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals defined in 2015 to be achieved by 2030.

To the organisers’ credit, the conference was well-organised, and they did try to walk the talk by being zero single-use plastics, trying to go zero waste (don’t know if achieved, though they claimed, even before lunch started, that it was zero waste), and zero carbon (unlikely to be achieved given the amount of technology used?). All meals were also vegetarian and supposedly locally-sourced.

However, ‘responsible business’ to me seems an oxymoron, and the two days were filled with lots of mutual back-patting, hypocritical and/or delusional presentations and speeches. It all sounds good: striving for universal well-being goals (don’t particularly like the word ‘development’ and all the implied assumptions and connotations), leaving no one behind. The SDGs were sold as ‘insurance for businesses’ to ‘stay ahead of the curve’ (what curve? You mean to stay as the top 1% owning 50% of the world by avoiding taxes?) because they (SDGs) are good for growth, the planet and people.

I’m not sure, really. One of the main reasons for the huge profits some companies make is the exploitation of the environment, natural resources and people, which result in the need for well, most if not all the Sustainable Development Goals? Are companies themselves not the ones creating poverty, by destroying the environment on which people’s livelihoods depended on, making them reliant on our economic system (and therefore poor) and suppressing wages or relocating to countries which have lower wages or environmental standards? But no point crying over spilt milk, we have reached the stage we are at now, so let’s just move on and try to make things better. Isn’t it great businesses are now on board to make the world better?

Sure, but only if it aligns with their bottom line. This was one of the main things I was hearing over the two days, during the SDG workshops. There were three sessions of 5-6 workshops that covered each SDG, and I chose to attend SDG 1 Reducing poverty, SDG 2 Sustainable cities and communities and SDG 15 Forest and biodiversity restoration. At each workshop, after a quick presentation by panelists and q&a, delegates were told to come up with suggestions addressing questions of Scaling up, Measuring and Interconnectivity, some of which would then be chosen by the workshop facilitator to be presented and voted on by all delegates subsequently. Whilst giving suggestions (if you had the opportunity to, since some people like hearing their voices and dominating discussions), there was a constant reminder that these solutions had to appeal to businesses, work for their agenda and basically make money for them.

Some of the goals do just that. SDG 7 Clean and affordable energy, SDG 8 Decent work and economic growth, or even SDG 13 Climate action for examples. They help companies be more efficient and protect their businesses (and profits). Most though, don’t align that well with their bottom line, and become PR/CSR (Public Relation/Corporate Social Responsibility) exercises.

value-for-money1
Go Google image CSR cartoons.

I think that businesses can be responsible and make impact to achieve the SDGs, if they’re small and not beholden to shareholders. Yet they often lack the monetary financing because most of these objectives are not profit-making. The huge multi national corporations (MNCs) that could make an impact, on the other hand, do often have foundations to do their CSR work (and avoid taxes), funded by probably leaching off the very communities whose environment they’ve destroyed or people they’ve underpaid. They also have rather nice and inspiring videos of examples where they’re doing great work for poverty alleviation or biodiversity restoration, as well as grand commitments to zero deforestation, zero slavery, or 100% sustainable sources.

But how can we know if businesses deliver on their supposed social/environmental responsibility? Can we trust them to have done what they say they’ve done? How can large MNCs ensure supply chain compliance? It’s not difficult to make fancy slide shows and videos, to showcase a particular example of how you’ve done things well while hiding all the other failures to commit to SDGs. Also outcomes and numbers are one thing, actual impact another. Interface was the only company that convinced me they were trying to improve people’s lives and clean up the environment, mainly because they are still trying to measure their impact, rather than just reporting on outcomes and numbers and expecting to be lauded.

HP claims to be “creating a brighter future through actions, solutions and technology that makes life better for everyone, everywhere.”, with programmes to provide access to IT and quality education to children living in rural areas. But how does one take their word and accept them as responsible companies, when they also contribute to Israel’s oppression of Palestians? Can one talk about providing quality education for children worldwide when at the same time they’re fueling conflict and disrupting childhoods in other countries?

Can businesses be responsible? Can we have sustainability and profitability? Moving on the larger questions, is sustainable development even possible for all? Some countries might be able to meet their country targets but often by exporting externalities (as most of the global North have done). Much of what we’ve achieved as so-called progress or development is done by trampling on others who have less than we do, by exporting jobs or pollution we don’t want to countries who cannot afford to say the same. Can cities be sustainable? Should we encourage the growth of more cities? The panelists all talked about big data, technology, efficiency, and partnerships. But not people, communities, or liveability, nor about mental health, well being, nature, or ecological footprint. If questions were raised, they were waved away quickly to more lauding of green and energy efficient buildings and SMART cities.

The last workshop I attended on forest and biodiversity restoration summed up the experience for me. Not really being aligned with the bottom line, the workshop was largely presented and attended by NGOs and academics, with only a few business people around. It was also the only workshop in which everyone around the table could voice their opinion and listened respectfully to ideas presented.

To be honest, I think achieving the SDGs isn’t impossible. If businesses really want to be responsible, they should be willing to take a cut of profits, pay what’s due to the people and the environment, re-invest in environmental protection and restoration (hire some ecologists, marine biologists, and social scientists!) and stop harping about their bottom line. But that I think, would probably be impossible.

greenwashing-cartoon
Check out this post on greenwashing here.

 

Speaking up for Palestine as Christians

I don’t usually write about political current affairs or religion, the former because I don’t feel that informed or strongly about issues to write about them, the latter because I think it’s a personal belief issue (and declaring one’s religious beliefs tend to make people judge with hostility unnecessarily). But the more I read about certain issues, the less able I am to just stay silent, when there are such blatant injustices involved. I thought quite hard about the title, thought of more pompous sounding ones like Freedom and Oppression, or Oppression in the Holy Land, etc. But it seems easier and less pretentious to just cut to the chase.

Today (2 Nov) marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration¹, made by the British government in 1917 during World War I in support of the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. In the declaration, the British also added the caveat that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Looking at what’s happened to Palestine since then however, and how Palestinians have been/are treated, it’s fair to say that all notions of respecting the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities have gone out of the window, if they even ever existed. [And in some cases, even Jews suffer discrimination, if they’re not Ashkenazi who are from European countries].  The Balfour Declaration is problematic in many ways, and the oppression of Palestians by Israelis in their homeland is outrageous, but my problem with this whole issue is the seeming lack of awareness of this issue among Christians, and worse, justifications for the Israelis by Christian Zionists.

2512
Adverts for the #MakeItRight campaign banned by Transport for London

As a Christian, to be unaware of what’s going on in the land from which our religion originates is a failure of education. Growing up Catholic, I’ve attended Sunday masses every week for almost the entirety of my 25 years. And every week, without fail, there would be some mention of the land of Israel. So I live my life thinking Israel is the land of milk and honey, that some pretty horrific things went on there in the past, but it’s all history now. And that the Israelis have always lived in Israel. It’s only been in the last year or so, that I became more aware of the realities of life in what’s now commonly accepted as Israel. Of course, it didn’t help that Israel and Singapore have always had good relations, and it’s a well-known fact that our Armed Forces were trained by the Israelis back in our early days of Independence. I never thought too much of Israel beyond that, not knowing anything about the Israeli occupation. On hindsight, it was just foolish of me to assume that Singapore would not establish good relations with Israel just because they were committing morally reprehensible acts. Singapore is after all, just a small vulnerable country that strives for good diplomatic relations with all countries (especially powerful ones).

Being now more aware of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, coming across Christian Zionists (Christians who believe that Jews returning to the Holy Land and establishing the state of Israel is in accordance with the fulfillment of bible prophecy) who justify what the Israelis are doing is an affront to my religious senses. What the Israelis are doing (restricting movement of people, of vital goods and services, grabbing land from the natives, assaulting even children etc. – go forth and Google and be horrified) is an affront to anyone’s sensibilities, whether religious or not. To use religious justification (which in my opinion is a weak argument because it’s usually more about gaining power than anything that is morally right) just insults everyone who is religious. If one needs a bible (or torah) phrase to justify taking land away from people who’ve always lived there, then how about “You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien, for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)

What was done 100 years ago, is done. The damage caused in Palestine echos those from other colonised countries, but on a much worse scale. I don’t claim to have a solution to the problem, or to know much about the back story behind what’s been done, but condoning Israel’s actions (and supporting companies that are complicit in the occupation) is unacceptable. Palestinians are calling for recognition of their rights, their right to live on their land as their forefathers have lived for centuries, their right to move around freely on their land, their right to be human, something that all of us, any of us should be able to identify with and support. And the UK, as the main perpetrators, should apologise.


1 Palestinians are calling for the British government to apologise for the Balfour Declaration, and are marking the centenary with a campaign around the UK to #MakeItRight. On Twitter though, the hashtag has been interestingly hijacked.

Some honest reflections: Part two – Inequality, injustice, and escaping the System

I am no economist, nor do I really know very much or in great detail about the economics or the politics behind such issues. What I do know though, is that I have never been fully satisfied with the capitalistic lifestyle offered, and the more I learn about the world, the more outraged I get at the injustices that still exist. The world has always been an unequal place, I don’t know enough to say objectively that we’re better off or worse off than other times in history, but I somehow feel like we’re not that much better off, despite all the technological and social advances.

It seems almost juvenile to be raging over the age old problem of inequality.  “Mummy it’s not fair!” What ever happened to that child-like sense of justice and fairness that used to exist? Has social conditioning reduced us to accepting that life is never fair and we can’t do anything about it and let it be so? Or has the System succeeded in throwing endless distractions at us so we just keep our minds off things that truly matter? I use the word ‘System’ here because I know no better term to describe this world we (or I) live in. If I have to define it, I can only say I’m referring to governments, the capitalist system, corporations’ power, social norms, and everything else that defines or appears to define how we live.

The past few months, I’ve been suffused with journalism about the plight of the Rohingyas, educating myself about what’s happening between Palestine and Israel, following the Guardian’s feature series on The Defenders, and reading articles about land grabbing by governments and corporations, such as experienced by the Shuar people in Ecuador. Meanwhile, we just live our lives as usual, a little shaken occasionally perhaps, by bombings and attacks in the UK and USA, but still continually consuming.

I’ve become jaded with the way we’re told to live, with the way lives are led in Singapore, with capitalism, with how capitalism is really the master of all our lives. I’ve always hated shopping, though the stereotype constantly perpetuated about women is that women enjoy shopping. And now that I’m older and more aware, I realise I hate advertisements for telling me what I need when I really don’t need those things, I dislike shopping malls for being the face of capitalism (and because they get ridiculously crowded), and most of all, it infuriates me that these items are put on display with a price tag that reflects neither the true environmental nor social cost. (People get killed for protesting the opening of a mine, and many more suffer in the mines from which metals are extracted to produce our things.) But none of us will think twice about how the items were made, because hey look it’s on 50% discount, such a good deal!

We’ve been told from young, in Singapore, to study hard, to do well in school, so we can get a good degree and good jobs. True, yes we need to have some economic security to feed ourselves and look after ourselves. But ultimately, to what end? The endless chase for paper qualifications is still just about getting money and more money, and though success may be more broadly defined now than before, it still refers to something tangible, monetisable. Just being a good decent human being with morals and sound values is not valued.

I could go on a rant about Singapore, inequality in wages, prices, and how people buy too much. But the venting wouldn’t serve much purpose. We’ve been numbed and sedated. We spend our energies playing the game of trying to save a few dollars by paying with a certain credit card, or getting a discount with another card. But I am starting to think that this capitalist system doesn’t work, and we should all stop trying to play its game. I don’t know of any alternative that might work, but continuing to live the way we’ve been living merely serves to make the rich richer, give them power to marginalise the poor, and make the poor poorer.

We need systemic change, a cultural shift, a paradigm shift, an economic shift, because this current system has failed environmentally and socially. The rich and the powerful who want to get even richer are able to claim ownership of land and natural resources, extract whatever monetisable resources while trashing the environment, and leave the place polluted and unliveable for the poor people who had been living there and living off the environment agreeably the whole time. While on the other end of the chain, we the consumers who are far removed from such natural resources because we live in built-up cities, merely move money around the system and line the pockets of the rich by buying items made from those natural resources while the injustices to the environment and the people are left unaccounted for. And I know all that I’m saying isn’t new, but I guess it’s the first time I’m really feeling the pressure of the System to conform and to live as I’ve been told to live (since I’m no longer a student but a working adult), working as a cog in the System till I get so entrenched with my credit cards and insurance premiums that I cannot get out of it.

I thought I was just unhappy with the Singaporean system that makes me feel trapped, but I realise it’s the entire System which most of this world now runs on. I don’t know just yet what I could do, but I know I won’t be satisfied with just living as I’ve always lived and doing what I’ve always done, and just trying to minimise my impact on the earth by avoiding unsustainable products, while ultimately feeding the System.