Falling down the spiral funnel of a global pandemic

Ever since I understood how biodiversity loss, climate change, and social injustices are intertwined with the global capitalist political economy, I subscribed to the notion only a global catastrophe would halt (neoliberal capitalist) Business As Usual. I thought it would perhaps be mounting social and environmental injustices that would change BAU (but then Jeremy Corbyn lost UK elections and Bernie Sanders isn’t doing too well in the US ones and I lost hope), if not climate change (like the climate strikes, extinction rebellion and other civil society actions). A pandemic was not at the top of my mind, even when the outbreak began in China last Nov/Dec and spread to neighbouring countries, including Singapore.

In many ways, this pandemic feels like being a coin hurtling through a spiral funnel (I remember one quite distinctly from a primary school field trip to the Science Centre in Singapore). It starts off slow, rolling around the convex dish, but picks up pace and ends off in a mad spin at the bottom. The mood and public attitude has changed drastically in a short period of time here in the UK. Just a week ago, we would still go about our usual habits, eating out and meeting friends, though perhaps not shaking hands. Over the weekend though, it’s as though we ratcheted up several gears, and now trains and buses are nearly empty, universities have suspended face-to-face lectures and will likely be closing off access to physical buildings by the end of the week.

In times of crisis though, when status quo can no longer exist, we’re faced with stark choices. To let our worst nature show itself, become more selfish and look out only for our own interests (i.e. panic hoard, whether at an individual or country level); or to let our better nature take control, showing care and concern for those around us and acknowledging that it is only by working together and in solidarity with the most vulnerable that we will ride out crises.

I’m really hoping this would be the opportunity to reform the current political economy, for a better, more socially and environmentally just world. Not saying that this pandemic is a cause for celebration for the planet; there are certainly those out there saying how this viral spread has been good for the earth, with air and water pollution down, the appearance of dolphins in waterways etc. Framing environmental issues as Humans vs. Nature is a big part of the problem (and I’m reading The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene by Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher at the moment which very much discusses this issue – highly recommend! Also check out this article by Bill Adams on COVID-19 and conservation for a more thoughtful reflection).

I think it would be more helpful to see this as an illustration that BAU is not a great path to continue downwards, particularly since the suspension of BAU reveals deep cracks in the resilience of the economy. All the precariousness of gig economy jobs, zero-hour contracts, people surviving hand-to-mouth most of the time etc., the barebones of how many people live on the edge is revealed, and that’s certainly something that need not and should not continue, post-pandemic.

On the note of the pandemic stopping BAU though, and the silver lining of pollution levels dropping and some biodiversity re-appearing, I wonder how that balances against the increased use of single-use, disposable items, particularly for medical use, and possible increase in use of cars instead of public transport. I suppose if there is a complete lockdown on movement, all kinds of vehicular movement would likely be reduced, apart from goods transport.

Apart from the contrasting reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic of hoarders and carers, there are also those out there who are just exacerbating the situation unhelpfully, pointing fingers and playing the blame game. That it was China’s wildlife market that let loose this virus and China should be punished, or that it’s the barbaric practices of wildlife trade and consumption that led to this pandemic. While it is true that the virus likely jumped from an animal host to a human one and from there, began its global conquest, nobody (barring those who just wanna watch the world burn) would have wished it to happen and blaming doesn’t help. Wildlife consumption is a fairly normal thing throughout the history of humankind (and happens not just in Asia but also in European and North American contexts… of deer and rabbits etc.) and it is the hyper-connectedness of our present age that facilitated the spread…

In any case, while it may seem like it especially online, it is not the end of the world. Take care and do follow the necessary precautions of physical distancing, frequent hand-washing and keeping up of social connections up. In these uncertain times, we certainly don’t need the added mental stress of isolation and coping on our own. Thank goodness we managed to get the Internet up and running before we stumbled upon this crisis requiring physical distancing.

Time for radical change

[Updated 16 Dec 2019 to correct what Kallis’ book Limits actually meant about limits]

I chanced upon this investigative article/docufilm The Source | The human cost hidden within a cup of coffee on Twitter, as with almost everything interesting to me these days. It is a very lengthy article (or you can watch it in 25 mins), revealing the farce of certification labels and the very real hard labour that go into the coffees that make their way into our hands and bellies. The investigation focused their attention on the child labour implicated within the Mexican Chiapas coffee supply chain; officially and legally, children below 15 years of age are not allowed to work. But the coffee berry pickers, mostly seasonal migrants from Guatemala, come with their children, for the alternative is to leave behind their children to starve. Neither can the children be left unattended while the adults leave to work in the day, and families could well do with the extra hands to increase their meagre income.

Here’s the film if watching is preferable to reading

Personally, I see little issue with children (aged 7ish and above) ‘working’; children have always lived where adults worked and from around that age, started picking up the skills and experience needed to later take on full responsibilities. In fact, is schooling not essentially preparing children to work in offices, training us to sit quietly at our desks, obeying instructions and commands from higher ups?

Still, work for children has to be age-appropriate, and I greatly concurred with the indignation and concern that was voiced in the investigation about the heavy sacks of picked coffee berries the children were carrying. Child labour aside, given that coffee generates more than $80 billion per year globally, and there was a 40% drop in the price of coffee on the world market in the past two years, surely the precarious and severely underpaid (~$4.50/day) position of the Guatemalan migrants would be a cause for investigation and alarm in itself. The investigation’s point was that though many large corporations now subscribe to ethical certification labels and claim to be slavery (or sometimes deforestation)-free and fair, these labels do a poor job of actually ensuring that farms comply with the certification requirements, hence though end-consumers may believe they are drinking an ethical cup of coffee, it is often far from the truth.

Not a week ago, I read another article The Coup in Bolivia Has Everything to Do With the Screen You’re Using to Read This (but for a better context of what’s happening in Bolivia, read this). It’s got a much more political slant than the coffee supply chain article, but to me, the point made was similar. That transnational corporations (mining lithium, in the case of Bolivia) have the biggest say in the lives of millions, usually vulnerable people in the Global South. Whether it’s economic profit over an intact environment, human livelihood and dignity, or even lives (non-human, Indigenous or otherwise dependent on the land), massive amounts of money is channeled to corporations headquartered in other, usually Global North countries. And states have little to no role to play in the matter, whether by force (economic or physical) or by choice (being part of the Global North of the Global South).

[Coincidentally, the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights happens to be going on at the moment in Geneva, Switzerland, with some attention paid to environmental defenders who have lost their lives (which is how I stumbled upon this event). Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have live-streaming or comprehensive live-tweeting covering their talks, which is a real shame. Hopefully there will be some media reports or popular articles coming out post-event.]

And so, what are we left with? More tinkering around the edges, certifications and labels to assure us end-consumers of the fairness of this globalised economic system? That we can have our cake and eat it all – coffees and smart devices for everyone who can afford to purchase them, fair wages to everyone along the supply chain, no environmental destruction and no lives lost (alongside profits for stakeholders and top earnings for CEOs of these corporations)?

It seemed so obvious to me once the point was made – we cannot have infinite things, infinite wants, infinite growth on a finite planet. I cannot understand why ‘plastics is bad’ has managed to get widespread attention but ‘we live on a finite planet’ has failed to receive similar coverage. Well actually, I can. Because one can tinker around the edges with plastics (make biodegradable ones, get bacteria to eat them, replace plastics with other resource-consuming products etc.), but facing up to the reality of the biophysical boundaries of our planets? That requires a whole system change.

I’ve just started reading Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care by Giorgos Kallis (whose article on Socialism Without Growth first got me aware and thinking about these issues about two years ago). It is time we imposed limits on ourselves (as we already do to live collectively in a society, but not holistically enough) and work towards a system that would be fair for all people (but especially the historically disenfranchised and marginalised), living and non-living entities that make up the wonder that is our planet. So vote, hopefully for the better, because it matters.

[Update on 16 Dec 2019] Having read a few more chapters of the book, I’ve realised that Kallis’ interpretation of limits is not that we should impose limits on ourselves because resources are finite. The concept of finite resources was actually meant to make us consume more (classical economics’ laws of demand and supply). Rather, by self-imposing limits, we can gain more freedom (like Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice ), provide space (physical and metaphorical) for others (human and non-human, living and non-living), and avoid the negative consequences. Importantly, by it being self-imposing (rather than ascribing limits to the environment, as in ‘planetary boundaries’), we have agency and take on the responsibility of the consequences.

Response to Commentary: Climate action is our generation’s 1965

I read Vivan Claire Liew’s commentary on Singapore’s climate action on Channel News Asia with great interest – and disappointment. The issues of climate breakdown, alongside the ongoing biodiversity crisis and widespread land-use conversion, are not recent ‘hot news’ to me, but interests that have taken me from ‘A’ level biology through to pursuing a doctorate degree. At the ages between 20 and 30, when one matures into adulthood and joins the ranks of society, the future becomes something a lot more tangible and real, accompanied by many questions that never used to bother me – do I want to have children; what kind of world will they be living in? Do I want to buy a house; will it still be a viable place to live as global warming accelerates?

As such, I was glad too, that our Prime Minister openly acknowledged the challenge of climate breakdown in his National Day Rally, in contrast to the responses of many other heads of states. I choose to use the word ‘breakdown’ instead of mere ‘change’ to signify that what is happening is going to result in a disaster for humanity, following The Guardian and many other climate experts. Yet I cannot help but be alarmed by the solutions that are put forth, exemplified by Liew’s commentary.

. Yet I cannot help but be alarmed by the solutions that are put forth, exemplified by Liew’s commentary.

As she acknowledges, Singapore as a country does emit a lot of carbon. We use up a lot of resources. Unfortunately, the paradigm shift that is actually required to save our homeland and our world does not include green growth. I am rephrasing and using the ideas of many better intellectuals, academics, activists and concerned citizens of the world than myself in the following paragraphs, but these ideas and the community that I’ve found in them have been the only real beacon of hope I’ve found in dealing with the pressing issues of our age, from climate breakdown to massive social inequality. 

The false allure of economic growth

Growing up in Singapore, the imperative of continuing economic growth was an ever-resounding anthem, mentioned in daily news, quarterly reports, and annual speeches. Taught at ‘A’ level Economics that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market will – and is the only mechanism that can – distribute scarce resources efficiently, I was never allowed to question the logic of the market or capitalism (I attempted to make sense of this issue 7 years ago, and it’s interesting to see how I’ve changed and grown intellectually). Yet, why not? What is it about economic growth that warrants this hallowed, no-go zone attitude towards it?

Economic growth depends on resource consumption (and so, carbon emissions). There has been no evidence to show any absolute decoupling of resource use and growth, and any efficiency gains that may be achieved are far overshadowed by increasing demand. Singapore has been trying to shift its economy to a more service-oriented one – but services still require infrastructure and inputs that take up resources. Focusing on economic growth (as a metric of success or progress) is to foolishly cling onto a sinking money chest in the sea, slowing drowning ourselves instead of letting go to save our lives. 

It is often said that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ (quote by USA President John F. Kennedy), and so we need a growing economy to improve the lives of the poor. Poverty and inequality though, exists by design and not by nature. We can implement policies to redistribute resources for a fairer outcome, and ensure a high standard of living and well-being for all. We could start with shorter work weeks and a Universal Basic Income – so people can choose to stay at home and look after their children or parents, instead of outsourcing it to a foreign domestic worker. It would improve parent-child relationships, reduce our reliance on (and concomitant exploitation of) foreign workers, and have happier families. What is more important in life, our relationships, or continually rising incomes beyond what is necessary? Or, existentially speaking, a habitable, living planet, or one with extreme climate events, little arable land and high social conflict?

Climate breakdown is a strong imperative to change our game, but doing so while neglecting to address social injustices, would be irresponsible and unethical, and this goes beyond our shorelines. As a small and resource-poor nation (as we are often told in National Education classes), we have to import most of our goods, leaving an environmental and social footprint trailing across the world that impacts (mostly) Global South nations and poorer communities. Yet if we were able to curb our demand, and invest greater effort into producing for home consumption (restarting certain vital industries), we could both cut down our carbon footprint and minimise the damage we inflict on others beyond our borders. My aunt runs a business producing handmade sofas, and struggles, unsurprisingly, to find Singaporeans who are both skilled and willing to do such craftswork. I would say though, that making something with your own hands, something that is useful, is of great value to oneself and to society, and is a job that deserves much higher ‘standing’ in our society than we give it. I, with my mediocre Design & Technology skills, was extremely proud and satisfied with myself when I (with help from others) built a double bed which slides to expand and can be opened up for storage underneath.

We do need to stop financing fossil fuel industries, and support businesses that implement planet- and people-friendly practices. We do need to switch to renewable energies, and shift to low-emission transport and infrastructures, while reducing overall demand for energy. We can place more emphasis on care work, which is low-carbon-intensive, meaningful and worthwhile, and absolute necessary but impossible to automate. Letting go of economic growth is not saying we don’t need businesses and markets, just that we cannot keep producing more, year-on-year, and that industries which do not add to our well-being and damage our ecosystem should be phased out. It means ditching the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a metric for success, and adopting instead, the Genuine Progress Indicator, for example. Anyone who has taken ‘A’ level Economics is well-versed in why GDP is a poor measure for success; further it is a tool that has long-outlived its intended use. It was designed to aid planning in World War II, and with its way of making deforestation and natural disasters count positively in a nation’s GDP, ought to be retired.

It is undeniable that neoliberal capitalism has failed us, as humans, a country, and the whole planet Earth. What we need now, is to have the courage to imagine a better,fairer, and climate-stableworld. Planetary boundaries are what they say they are – limits, and our economic system has to learn to play within these limits. Another compelling reason why the same economic thinking won’t get us out of this mess? Because we already knew about global warming by the late 1970s, but those in higher seats of power decided that growing the economy was more important. Are we going to repeat the same mistake, despite knowing the severe repercussions? 

Image found on Google search, taken from: https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/degrowth-is-it-useful-or-feasible/

Who’s trying to ‘save the world’?

I recently read this Medium article titled ‘I’m Done Trying to Save the World’ by Devon Price, which mainly details their experiences in campaign activism for the environment/conservation, LGBTQ equality and shutting down a solitary confinement centre, and contrasting it with their sister’s work at school in creating a safe and just environment for all students. They end it by concluding that all their previous work in political activism counted for less than the setting up of a good local environment, countering racist comments by relatives or reassuring distressed youths.

A friend of mine sent me the article, telling me it reminded her of me. I’m not too sure why – because I’m seen as someone who tries to ‘save the world’, and that I might commiserate with the feelings of Devon? I do/have not engaged with the high-level of activism that they had, but I can empathise with the feeling of burnout and insignificance. On reading the article however, I’m left with a slightly uncomfortable feeling over the framing of the issues – one, about ‘saving the world’; two, about individual choice.

Apart from the fact that the world does not need saving, but rather it is the environment we humans are accustomed to living in that is being threatened by climate breakdown and biodiversity loss, the constant framing of environmental issues as being about ‘saving the world’ prematurely closes off discussion. Questions such as whether the proposed solution does what it’s intended to, whether they are appropriate for the context, or if they are even necessary are left out, when we talk about ‘saving the world’ – because of course, we want to do good and ‘save the world’.

Taken from Twitter @TommySiegel

As the comic above illustrates, so many environmental movements revolve around individual choice. To buy a more environmentally friendly or ethical product, or to recycle more, or to drive less etc. Yet while all these individual actions are laudable in themselves, they are no where near the scale needed to address the very large problem we are facing. [Here is a web comic that illustrates the point.] It is global political and economic policies (driven largely by western/American institutions) that are raiding the earth of its natural resources, on which we are completely reliant on whether directly or indirectly. These same policies are also systematically wiping out any resistance they face in the form of environmental guardians, the Indigenous peoples whose lives are most closely tied with their land.

Individually, there may be little we can achieve. Collectively though, we can affect policies for a better world, whether for the environment or for people, especially those of us who are privileged and have more of a voice in public spaces. Campaigning and lobbying is not for everyone, it takes an immense amount of energy and time to be able to do all that, and does not suit everyone’s personalities. But to stay silent is not an option, if what we want is a more equitable, more just, more beautiful world to live in.

Image result for silent only helps the oppressors not the oppressed
Taken from Google images.

There is no silver bullet or panacea when it comes to solving large-scale, globalised systemic issues. Technological fixes are appealing (like devices to clean up plastic pollution or geoengineering to cool down the planet) because it suggests we can continue living our lives as we have lived them for the last 50 years or so without drastic changes to our political economy. But the social and environmental/ecological problems we face now distill down to issues about power (differences) and recognition of equality among all humans (not just the politically and economically privileged), and without addressing these, technology only gets abused. So who’s trying to save the world? I’d think that we all need to do better in any capacity we can to forge a fairer, safer world for every living being on this planet we all share. And especially push for the rich and privileged who caused most of the problems to take responsibility.