The next stage of academia: embarking on a PhD

Since 2017, I have fallen out of the habit of announcing life events/my movements on social media, yet somehow I still feel a need to announce/document my starting a Doctor of Philosophy programme this October at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences. It’s been a fairly long and considered process, since graduating from my bachelor’s in 2015. It took me 2 months of a voluntary/self-searched research internship at the University of Queensland, a year-long master’s programme at Imperial College London, 15 months research associate job at Nanyang Technological University and another year of intense reading/learning and 9 applications* to finally land myself a PhD (with a scholarship).

I had struggled with the question – to do a PhD or not – the whole time, questioning my motivations for wanting to do a PhD (prestige/reputation? trying to keep on par with my peers from similar educational backgrounds who have already finished/are in the midst of doing their PhD?), my level of commitment knowing what the graduate environment could be like (been reading PHD Comics since finishing GCE ‘A’ levels… though I’m aware the environment in the USA can be quite different to elsewhere), and most importantly, what topic I would want to spend the next 3-5 years of my life working on. The four years I had spent since my bachelor’s was formative in shaping the kind of research experience/academic mentor/environment I would like to have, and realising that I do thoroughly enjoy the research process and being part of the academic community. But I think the key question on what research is worth me spending those years on (and somebody paying me to do it) was really only answered after I attended the summer school on degrowth and environmental justice last July.

Doing a PhD is usually seen as the start of an academic career, culminating in a professorship, and I’ve seen enough criticisms of academia to know that I didn’t want to work on something with no “direct relevance” to reality and to be accused of being in an “ivory tower”. Engaging with political ecology and environmental justice literature also brought into focus many of the political and economic realities faced by those impacted by conservation measures, which are often times overlooked by researchers or perpetuated through conservation interventions. There’s still a lot to learn and think about (and work towards), but for my PhD thesis, I am intending to examine telecoupled links of protected areas in Colombia, Colombia because the lab that I will be joining (Prof David Edwards lab) has a good number of links there that I can tap on. I am sure this will be refined and evolve as I start the PhD process, but I’m really psyched to use the telecoupling framework to look at how distant actors and flows affect local systems.

I’m also really excited about starting the PhD in Sheffield. I had applied to do the undergraduate degree in the Animal and Plant Sciences department 9 years ago (I took a gap year after completing my A levels), and I’m pleased to be able to finally experience being there. Not to mention all the climbing!!

*Coming back to the process of applying for PhDs, I think the main advice I can give is to apply to many and hope for the best (and also make sure you apply to labs you think you’ll fit in/professors whom you can work with). I had applied for 9 programmes from universities across Europe (including the UK), some of which were funded (the European programmes) and others which I had to separately apply for scholarship funding. I was offered a place in Vienna, but declined as I wasn’t prepared to move there (I was being hopefully optimistic when I applied and did not expect to get anywhere near the final selection of candidates, since I did not think my previous research experience fitted what I would be doing. But I really liked the topic that was being investigated, which was hidden emissions of forest transitions). I obtained offers of placement from most of the UK universities I applied to, but unfortunately did not manage to secure any funding. I was all ready to give up ever securing a PhD (scholarship) and so any hopes for an academic career, when an email advertisement forwarded by my previous supervisor A/P Janice Lee at NTU appeared in my inbox. I applied, got interviewed, and was offered the PhD scholarship (all within two weeks in July!) so you know, anything is possible. They say start applying early, but sometimes opportunities arise at the last minute…

Understanding the mammoth task at hand

I’ve been wanting to write more (as I’ve been saying in my previous posts…) but while the collision of inspiration and time to write is one stumbling block, the bigger problem is that of inferiority complex. That many people more eloquent than me have written aplenty on things I muse and want to write about, and my writings contribute little. Or that I can’t write or express myself well enough anyway. But enough with this inertia, I just have to develop a thicker skin and write, for whoever and whatever. Though I am mainly writing to develop my opinion and share my thoughts.

The topic of this post is not about writing though, but more about “bringing down the system”. Having kicked the Facebook habit, more of my time is spent scrolling on Twitter instead, a feed littered with mostly conservation/nature/STEM issues/opinions, but also social justice, politics and other perspectives (that mostly work towards realising a just society living within planetary boundaries). I have definitely noticed a ‘leftward’ transition in myself, over this past year of bringing together perspectives and ideas on justice, history and decolonisation, and in attempting to understand the present hegemony of the neoliberal capitalist globalised system we live in.

And it’s only with this firmly embedded realisation that capitalism is deeply flawed and any (progressive, socially/environmentally ‘desirable’) proposal that doesn’t endeavour to dismantle it will never be able succeed, that I’ve really adopted a critical eye in what I’m reading (or given to absorb). And more pertinently, it’s not just ‘capitalism’, as an abstract economic theory, that is problematic, but that it is actively enforced through American imperialism (through institutions like the World Bank, World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund etc.) and military might (check out John Pilger’s The War on Democracy).

It starts to sound like a conspiracy theory, or that perhaps I’m just super paranoid, but when you read up on it and start educating yourself (not through the mainstream), you realise it is all true. And that’s when I started feeling highly skeptical when I see people talk about issues and propose solutions (that I would have wholeheartedly agree and be on board with previously). For example, I was reading Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World, which talks about universal basic income, the case for working fewer hours etc – which are all proposals that the Degrowth movement advocates for. I half agree with what he proposes, but it stands in sharp contrast to Jason Hickel’s The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions [Highly, highly recommended. Everyone should read it!]. Hickel actually addresses root problems and lays it all out quite simply and starkly, while Bregman seems to skim around these prickly issues and most of all fails to acknowledge the highly uneven global playing field between the Global North and the Global South.

It seems to me that if we fail to see this point as being foremost important on any agenda that claims to be building a better world for human and non-human beings, then it will continue to perpetuate injustice and inequalities even if that is not the intention. And if we don’t realise what we are really up against, then any solution will likely fall short of its mark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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View of Collserola Parc from InOut hostel in Barcelona

Locations and logistics (some brief notes)

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

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Compost toilet with a view at Can Masdeu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Degrowth considered

Beyond growth

Degrowth: closing the global wealth divide

Scientists warn the UN of capitalism’s imminent demise

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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

 

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 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.

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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!