Thoughts

Preaching for the environment

How can we reach out to more people about the need for a more environmentally-friendly way of living? The UN designated 5 June to be World Environment Day, a day to Celebrate Nature, a reminder to go outside and be #withnature. For some organisations, the day can be a huge and important event – but for most of us, even those who work on environmental issues, it’s mostly just like any another day. Nothing like the hype of Christmas, or Chinese New Year, which of course have the power of commercialisation and capitalism behind them. Without excessive banners and advertisements telling us to not shop for nature, to spend less on unnecessary goods and resources, or to go out and enjoy nature for free, how else can we reach out to the larger, unconverted population?

While I was in the UK, belonging to a religious faith seemed to be rather niche. It does make you think that trying to spread the environmental message through religious communities would be rather futile, since they themselves seem to be facing difficulties trying to sell their message to the masses. However globally, according to a Pew Research Centre study in 2012, 8 out of 10 people declare themselves affiliated to a religious organisation. That’s quite a lot of people who look to someone else for guidance on how to live.

While there are many examples of religious communities protecting nature, from Cambodian Buddhist monks and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Churches protecting community forests, to Tibetan Buddhist monks protecting snow leopards from poaching and Malaysian mosques promoting sea turtle conservation, there are fewer examples of religious communities preaching general environmental messages. Active conservation efforts for habitat or species protection are to be lauded and publicised as great examples, but the problem we face in this day and age is a bigger one, that of general excessive consumption of resources at every level, the promotion of unfettered consumption, and the lack of understanding of the interdependence of every living (and non-living) entity on this earth.

That is not to say that it doesn’t exist; most famously, the Roman Catholic church’s Pope Francis published his papal encyclical (Laudato Si) in 2015 on caring for the environment, which he gave to US President Donald Trump recently. But I doubt Trump would read it, as would most Catholics; I’ll confess I’ve barely read it, but the first chapter at least provides a very good and general basis of all the environmental and social injustices in our world today.  Unless the message is constantly reinforced through weekly sermons, I’m not sure how much actually gets through to the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world. I was listening to one of the priests talking about baptism and the river Jordan one Sunday, but he never made mention of the fact that the same river barely exists now. And yet, if he were to mention it, how can he draw the link from that to how we live comfortably here in Singapore? Priests aren’t ecology teachers.

When there are no specific problems, like the poaching of wild animals or the cutting down of local forests, how does one preach the need to take care of the environment, to reduce mindless consumption and waste of resources and energy, and be heard and understood and followed? In an urban setting, which drives most of these problems, how does one reach out to the masses and get everyone to live a more thoughtful, environmentally (and socially) friendly life?

Organised religion has its critics, and it may or may not benefit the environmental cause, but I feel like with its reach, surely it would be a start. Like this solar-powered mosque in Morocco. I do think though, that for conservation and the larger environmental movement to succeed, any wonton destruction has to be as taboo as murder.

A question often asked is, why protect wildlife? Development can improve lives so why forgo it in place of killing off a few species? One can go through all the different arguments – its economic worth, its value importance for future generations or simply its beauty. But the powerful answer must be because it is part of our culture and therefore part of our beliefs and even our own identify. Once it’s second nature and part of a value system, no one will ever again ask the question why protect it.

-Bradnee Chambers, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals

 

Using R to search column in data frame for list of values

I made the jump from using Excel to R for data manipulation when I started on my Master’s project in 2015. I was pretty much forced to – I was looking at datasets of deforestation in the world, with 806,400 pixels. That was already aggregated by a factor of 1000 using Python (i.e. I had 805.4 billion pixels to start with). And I had about 14 such files. For me to load the file in Excel (apart from the fact that it was in raster GeoTIFF format, though it can be converted to a csv file) would already take a while, let alone trying to manipulate it (e.g. add/subtract/find mean etc.). Data manipulation can also be done in Python of course, with the pandas library, but I’m still trying to get my head around Python – maybe once I’ve somewhat mastered data processing in Python I’ll update this post. Here though, I just want to introduce using R for simple data processing, instead of using Excel.

There are many reasons to use R:

  1. It would probably be very useful for your career, if you’re after the kind of jobs that I am. (bit of a circular argument, but really, being proficient in R is very useful especially when many jobs these days require some level of data processing and manipulation). I.e. Looks good on your CV
  2. Coding sounds difficult but once you get a grasp of the syntax, it can and will make life easier (especially when it comes to large amounts of data). I.e. It’s pretty cool in a geeky way, in my opinion, and will save you time

I’m obviously no R expert, nor am I here to create tutorials for R beginners, I just wanted to write about bits of R programming that makes me go ‘that’s awesome’, or #:D 😀 😀 in my R script. As well as maybe help people trying to make the transition to using R as their main programme of choice for data analysis.


I wanted to find out if a list of countries are in this dataset that I have. What one could do in Excel would be to Ctrl+F the dataset for each of the countries on the list (or maybe there’s a more efficient way about it, I’ve stopped using Excel a while ago to learn the new techniques, but please comment if you know of something!). I only have 10 (the member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations), so that wouldn’t be too painful. But imagine you have a list of 100 countries – while the digital age and Microsoft Excel have made life easier for us, saving us from having to pore over pieces of paper – that quickly becomes tedious work.

[code language=”r”]
# I’m not attempting to teach basics of R here, if you are unfamiliar with how to load files, please do a Google search. Here, I am using a GIS shapefile, though the same can be applied for a normal csv file
# Obtain a shapefile of world boundaries
download.file("http://thematicmapping.org/downloads/TM_WORLD_BORDERS-0.3.zip", destfile="TM_WORLD_BORDERS-0.3.zip")
unzip("TM_WORLD_BORDERS-0.3.zip", exdir=".")

# I am using rgdal library to read in this shapefile
library("rgdal")

# read in the GIS file
world_border <- readOGR(dsn=".", "TM_WORLD_BORDERS-03")
# you can look at the data contents (i.e. attribute table)
world_border@data #prints everything, I just want to look at the first few entries
head(world_border@data)

# at this point, I can ‘manually’ search the GIS files for the countries I want
grep(‘Singapore’, worldbound@data$CNTRY_NAME)
# and do the same for all the countries I’m interested in

# alternatively, I can create a list of the SEA countries
SEA <- c(‘Vietnam’, ‘Laos’, ‘Cambodia’, ‘Thailand’, ‘Myanmar’, ‘Malaysia’,
‘Indonesia’, ‘Singapore’, ‘Philippines’, ‘Brunei’)
# and create a loop to search the world boundaries file for these countries, and only report an error if the country can’t be found
for (i in 1:length(SEA)){
if (length(grep(SEA[i], worldbound@data$CNTRY_NAME))==0)
stop(paste(‘unable to find’, SEA[i], sep=" "))
}
# I had initially included ‘East Timor’ in the list of SEA countries, and my loop returned ‘unable to find East Timor’, so I know it works
# this would also work with a csv file
[/code]

I did this search not so much to check if these countries exist on the world map, but more to check on the spelling of the countries. There are some databases which spell ‘Viet Nam’ instead of ‘Vietnam’, for example, and if I don’t check how it’s spelt, I might run into errors later on. I don’t presume to be an expert in R, and this code might be considered clunky by more proficient R coders, but this is the best I could come up with!

Apart from using Excel to Ctrl+F the countries I want, I could also have used QGIS to load the file and click on each country for information, or use a polygon to highlight all the countries in the region and obtain the information at once. Or used Python, or any other programme that allows data management. I just like R, and though I could easily and perhaps more quickly have done it in QGIS (with its GUI, without having to Google for the right R code to do what I want, because I’m still not all that familiar with R), I enjoy these little challenges, and it’ll eventually make me more proficient.

Doing fieldwork as a female

How do females deal with their menstrual period while out field? It is a rather underrated and neglected topic, so today, we had a female health in the field session for the (female) students in NTU’s Asian School of the Environment. Though I don’t teach the students, being a Singaporean who’s used a menstrual cup for the last 6 years on field trips, diving trips, and hiking and mountain-climbing expeditions gave me an insight with useful experiences and stories to share.

The issues surrounding doing fieldwork as a female may not be obvious to males (who are also the more common sex in the field), and many females might feel like menstruation is a taboo topic. But getting menstrual periods is something that happens to half of the world’s population and just needs to be dealt with appropriately. Just as many people with the means to have embraced the use of sanitary pads and so go about their everyday life, instead of being confined to their homes while they’re having their period, we shouldn’t feel like we can’t do field work (i.e. go outdoors without access to a toilet with running water) while we’re having our periods, particularly when alternative possibilities exist.

The session started out with Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) and vaginal thrush, and how to prevent them. It seems like the best way would be to not hold your pee (wild pees ftw!), drink lots of water, and maintain a basic level of hygiene. Girls do require a higher minimum level of hygiene than boys do I think, going by my experience thru-hiking in Chile. Using toilet paper (and burying it) and changing fresh underwear is almost a necessity for us, whereas guys don’t seem to get UTIs when they neglect those. Most people are aware of feminine hygiene though, I think.

The more pertinent issue was that of dealing with periods while outdoors. Apart from not having a ready bin for disposal (i.e. you have to bag your used sanitary napkins/tampons and bring it with you till you reach ‘civilisation’), the lack of a toilet bowl/running water can sometimes deter females. Personally, the massive waste of single-use, disposable but un-recyclable sanitary pads/tampons are a major con for using them, and after experiencing the comfort of using a menstrual cup as well, I would never use the disposables again (except for emergencies/supplement to prevent leaks!). I switched from using sanitary pads to using a menstrual cup in 2011 when I planned to hike in Nepal, and have since used it even while camping in Australia, climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, on expeditions in Ecuador/Peru, field trips in the UK, and long-distance hiking in Chile.

Menstrual cups are great especially when you’re out in the field because

  1. You don’t have to deal with disposing bloodied pads/tampons, you can just empty the blood out where you’ve been peeing/pooping (buried if necessary!).
  2. You don’t have to bring a massive supply of disposables.
  3. You can swim/dive.

There are many other pros of using menstrual cups over pads or tampons, like

  1. It’s really comfortable. You don’t end up sitting in your warm pool of blood, as you do with a pad.
  2. You save a lot of money not having to buy pads/tampons. I do use a thin, light-flow pad on my heavy flow days just in case my cup leaks because I haven’t had time to empty it, but otherwise a panty liner will suffice, so I end up using just 2-4 pads over the course of my period, as opposed to at least 10. And a menstrual cup can be used for many, many years – I’m still using the same one.
  3. You have to go to the toilet less often. When I was using a pad, I often worried about leaking, and so kept going to the toilet to check. The menstrual cup just needs emptying about twice a day usually, thrice if it’s a heavy flow, and once when it’s the last day.
  4. They don’t cause Toxic Shock Syndrome, because the cup merely collects the blood instead of absorbing it like tampons. Hence you can keep it in for longer.
  5. You’re not contributing to unnecessary waste. So much plastic and other waste goes to our landfills/incinerators every year. Waste less, don’t use disposables.

There is a higher starting up cost to using menstrual cups, in that they cost between S$30 (for Freedom Cups, a Singapore-based company) to S$50 (for UK-based Mooncup, which is what I’m using and was the only option in Singapore 6 years ago). It also took me about two periods to get familiar and comfortable with putting the cup in and taking it out.

However, maintaining hygiene while using the Mooncup is not difficult, I wash it out with water and put it back in (using my water bottle if a tap is not available). I have even accidentally dropped it in the toilet bowl while cleaning it out, and just rinsed it and popped it back in with no further issue (I am not advising cleaning your menstrual cup with toilet bowl water though, especially after you’ve peed in it…).

Everyone would have their own way of dealing with periods while outdoors, but to me, menstrual cups are a genius invention that should be embraced. It would be a huge shame if menstruation was a deterrent to more girls doing field work or going outdoors, though having (really bad) menstrual cramps would be a completely different issue.

We may be physically weaker (for most of the population) and have a slightly greater need of personal hygiene than males, but we shouldn’t fear it to be an impediment when doing fieldwork, nor allow it to be an excuse for not having more females on an expedition, because there is a need and value for women to be in the field at times, as Haifaa Abdulhalim accounts as when working as IUCN’s World Heritage Coordinator in the Arab region.

[Update: 10 May 2017] There are several other slightly more (than just trying to get let the blood out in a less disruptive fashion) drastic options for controlling your period, e.g. birth control/contraceptive pills, and intrauterine device (IUD). They both have the main/side effect of preventing pregnancy, so depending on your personal beliefs, you may prefer to use/avoid them. I’m not as familiar with these options so did not mention them as methods for controlling period bleeds, but from comments provided, they are sometimes a better option than menstrual cups.

Business and conservation – the hidden links

What do businesses have to do with biological conservation? When the word ‘conservation’ is mentioned, most people would think of Protected Areas (PAs), though with a stretch of the mind, consumer behaviour might also come into play. With issues like the illegal wildlife trade and the devastating impact of deforestation from palm oil plantations becoming more prominent in the news, influencing consumer behaviour is another angle that conservationists use to try and effect changes.

Using consumer behaviour to pressure businesses and corporations to improve their environmental standards, or to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products, was about the only link I thought the (strange and foreign) world of business had with my normalised world of biological conservation. Recently though, I came across this article that rather shocked me. There is a great deal of literature out there about the effectiveness of PAs, but most people would agree that having more PAs will be good for the environment. (In fact, some conservationists are advocating that Nature Needs Half. I might write something else on that another time.) The difficulties of setting up an effective Protected Area aside, I am of the opinion that the main problem is the lack of political will. That if a country is willing to create a PA instead of a natural resource concession, then the greater battle is won, and details of how it should be done to make it effective and not just a paper park can be settled later.

It appears that it’s not entirely the case. The article by Divya Narain on Free Trade Agreements, Corporate Power and Suing Countries for Protecting Biodiversity points out that a country that has signed a FTA with another can be sued for obstructing free trade if they decide to delineate a protected area. A 2016 article by Chris Lang on the REDD-Monitor website highlights that same issue of the Columbian government being sued by Canadian mining corporation Eco Oro, because it had passed a law that prevented mining in moorlands. That the power of corporations is so deep-seated and insidious is quite terrifying, though not surprising.

Will transparency about the operations of companies that obtain resources, and greater visibility of their work (and environmental/social commitments) in the press improve matters? Are consumers concerned enough that they will get sufficiently outraged to boycott companies that do not work up to certain environmental standards, or write in to flag up their concerns? I personally am not sure of the effectiveness of that, given that I myself haven’t written to a company to tell them they should use Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified palm oil in their products. (Though I am more inclined to buy products from a company that uses RSPO-certified palm oil than otherwise.)

Using consumer actions to pressure companies into adopting higher environmental/social standards is an interaction between business and conservation that I’m familiar with. What I hadn’t realised, was that shareholders of corporations can also do the same. At NTU’s Asian School of the Environment, where I am currently working, we had a seminar on Friday evening given by Asst. Prof. Judith Walls from the Nanyang Business School. She was looking at the factors that influence corporations to engage in dialogue with their shareholders with regards to improving the corporations’ environmental/social standards.

I will admit that I know next to nothing about corporations, shares, and shareholders. Judith was great and gave us a 101 class, explaining to us what corporate governance meant and how the board of directors differed from the management board. My main takeaway though, was that shareholders of various companies, if they cared sufficiently, could actually propose that the company improved some aspect of their environmental/social commitments. The company can then choose to accept the proposal and put it up for voting by the other shareholders during the Annual General Meeting, to apply to the Stock Exchange Council to reject the proposal, or to engage the shareholder in a dialogue to withdraw the proposal. Judith’s work focussed on identifying why some companies choose to engage in dialogue, but to me, the idea that shareholders can influence the company was entirely novel. Now that I think about it, it makes sense, and I might well be the only ignoramus who never knew that. But that just led me to question: why do we not appeal to shareholders to improve the standards of the companies in which they have a stake in? To try and tell huge investment banks and pension fund managers that environmental/social standards should be upheld, rather than telling oil and gas, or timber and plantation companies?

Maybe instead of chaining ourselves to trees, we should consider becoming activist shareholders like the Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia. Oh, I know why we’re not – we don’t have any money 😂

What I’d like to see changed in Singapore’s current societal mindset

My brother has stage 2 lymphoma cancer. He is in the midst of his treatment and has lost all his hair, but apart from that, you probably couldn’t tell he’s a cancer patient. He has a few shitty days after chemo, but most of the time remains happy positive and occupied, like most others his age – or perhaps even more positive than most. 

He was recently selected to be amongst the pool of students that his teacher would choose a valedictorian from; he’s due to graduate from his diploma on 3 May. So he duly prepared his speech, attended the rehearsals, and it was finally down to him being either the valedictorian or the spare. 

Then he came back from school and told us that he wasn’t going to be the valedictorian, because the teacher thought his speech would be too depressing (as an opening for the graduation ceremony) and because the other person had more awards. 

Which is the point of this tirade really – not being sour about my brother being the spare, that’s his issue to deal with not mine to write about – but that in our society, it’s still not okay to openly talk about things like having cancer. Or mental illness, for that matter. And that ultimately, despite what the Singaporean government has dreamed up to get students to learn for the sake of learning, we are still a society focused on awards. 

Awards are good, or can be good. They acknowledge hard work and effort, excellence and commitment. But when we publicise and focus only on those who have achieved the most awards, it creates a gap. It causes other students to believe they will never be as good, because they never got this award, or that scholarship. And as most pedagogy goes, causing students to think their potential is limited is probably the worst you could do. Plenty of ‘successful’ men and women you see today probably weren’t students who won the most awards. Or scored the highest GCE ‘O’ or ‘A’ level score. Or Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) score for that matter. So why do we keep emphasising that, with headlines and pages in our national broadsheet The Straits Times dedicated to talking about these students every year? I think it would be interesting to see an article on the top scorers from the 80s/90s and what they’re doing now. 

Never mind the awards culture, a more insidious problem is that we just don’t talk about important issues enough, but non-issues too much. Just cos my brother has cancer doesn’t make him depressing, or sad. He wasn’t even going to say that he has cancer, he is doomed but you know ultimately every dies so don’t let fear tether you, go forth and do great things. He is positive and upbeat, and him mentioning his cancer was a way of starting his speech. For him to go up and not even mention having cancer is like ignoring the elephant in the room, which is actually a thing that we commonly do in Singapore society. But why should that be? Why can’t we talk openly about cancers and other terminal illnesses, or mental illnesses? Ignoring problems don’t make them go away, and by our reluctance to talk about them in a casual everyday context, we make it harder for people who are suffering to seek help and talk about them. And there are many who suffer in our midst, with afflictions that may not be visible to our eye (though I think the worst and most incurable affliction is our addiction to non-renewable resources). I think that teacher just lost a great opportunity to show how open and forward-looking that polytechnic is, and for it to be a chance for others to talk about issues like young people having cancer in a more positive and upbeat light. 

That I’ve come back after 4.5 years of being abroad, to a country that’s advanced much technologically, yet still retains its close-mindedness in the way people are valued and important issues are sidelined is something that I’m still trying to get used to. This issue might just be limited to the polytechnic my brother is attending, but I think that’s highly unlikely. Though to be honest, I think my vested interest and greatest loss is that my younger brother would have brought up issues of sustainable seafood and reducing food waste in his version of the valedictorian speech, which would have had a far greater and ranging impact than any ranting of mine on this platform which preaches to the choir could do. 

What kind of conservationist are you?

Having taken a number of conservation science lectures/modules/courses in the last few years, the question of ‘why do you care/want to conserve (biodiversity)’ often comes up in introductory lectures. I recall sitting in the computer/discussion room of the Zoology department in Cambridge 2 years ago with a few of my course mates, discussing why we personally wanted to work in conservation (which probably culminated in my thoughts on the point of conservation and the role of econs in conservation). Part of our reading list was Kareiva and Marvier’s 2012 paper on What Is Conservation Science?, and we were trying to place our own values relative to what was discussed – whether our motivations were mainly biodiversity-centric or human-centric.  I remember being surprised at that time that many of my peers were more of the opinion that conservation was for people’s sake – for those living now but especially for the future generations, our children and grandchildren. I had thought that conservation was commonly perceived to be for nature’s intrinsic value, and that those who thought otherwise were ‘traitors to the cause’.

I have clearly shifted in my thinking since then, being labelled as a Critical Social Scientist now. A group of conservationists in the UK have come up with a Future of Conservation survey, which intends to collect views of conservationists and examine reasons behind the variation in the views held by them. It’s a short, 15 minute survey of the values you hold – more human- or biodiversity- centric, pro-market or not. Better yet, it provides a quick graphical representation of where you stand relative to other conservationists who have taken the survey.

I forgot to take a screenshot of my results, but I am slightly negative on both axes, putting me just inside the lower left quadrant of Critical Social Science.

Future_of_Conservation
Screenshot taken from the Future of Conservation website.

Conservationists have been pigeonholed to two sides of the debate – those embracing New Conservation (advocating economics/market-based solution and the corporate sectors taking the lead in solutions), and the Traditional Conservationists (who believe in conserving nature for its own intrinsic values and Protected Areas being the key solution). This survey examines the bigger picture behind the debate, and it would be really interesting to see the papers that come out of this survey.

Contribute your views now, and look at the direction conservation might take in the future!

A new blog for the next stage in life

If you know me, you might know that I’ve been blogging for many years on a few sites. I had been thinking about ceasing activity on both my personal blog (which I’ve maintained for a decade, and contains some of my most embarrassing teenage thoughts, though it also shows a slow and gradual maturity towards adulthood, I hope) and my nature blog (which I had initially started to log the field trips and activities I was involved in pre-university, but also has some of my contemplations on conservation and the environment, and hike/climb/travel logs) for a while. And while I was hiking in Chile at the end of 2016, I decided this would be one of my to-dos for 2017. So after a month of being back home in Singapore, coming into the fourth month of 2017, I’ve finally summoned enough energy to execute this move. I had initially wanted to get my own hosted domain, but decided I’m still not willing to put in that money – and what I’m currently doing hardly justifies that spending. So here I am, back on wordpress.com.

This to me is a fairly significant, if egoistic event. Maintaining two blogs – one personal, one more interest-based – appeared to demonstrate a dichotomy within myself, as if I had failed to harmonise my interests with my being. It had seemed necessary 5/6 years ago, but rather superfluous now. In addition to having started my first job and so entering ‘adulthood’, my increased clarity in my career aspirations encourage me to start a personal academic-oriented website.

There are many thoughts I’ve had that I’ve been wanting to pen down/type out, ranging from my experiences travelling through several capital cities (Santiago, New York City, London, and Singapore) in a month, job-hunting on the move/in other countries, the growing field of conservation social science, and my despairing/the need for systemic change. Maybe I’ll eventually find the time to write about those, but more likely not (my sites are littered with unfinished drafts). In any case, just to say me, my ego and my thoughts are back online, and I’ll be writing again soon, about more important things than myself.