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 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.
[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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
When we think of ‘van life’ and in this modern age, ‘digital nomads’, we sometimes forget that nomadic living is as old a concept as life itself, with migrations centred around seasons. Living in a van or caravan now is associated with either climbing ‘dirtbags’ who don’t work, Roma gypsies who are often also perceived as economically unproductive, or various other societally undesirable forms of vagrants, or on the other end of the scale, millennial hipsters living the digital nomad, Instagram-worthy life or middle-class retirees.
These perceptions are something I’ve been struggling with, realising my privilege in being able to live this life but not wanting to perpetuate or abuse it. As well as the growing contradiction between previous generations of van-lifers choosing this lifestyle as a way of escaping societal/economic pressures (cue Christopher McCandless), and the present ability to continue working to support this lifestyle through mobile wi-fi and laptops, and so further perpetuating and expanding the spheres of capitalism.
Nonetheless, in spite of all my self-inflicted doubts and insecurities, this has been very much a lesson in the value of labour and skills, and in being very aware of our consumption and production. The whole conversion process – stripping it down, cleaning it out, cutting a hole in the roof for a stealthy window/ventilation (thanks to Omar’s friend James for lending an angle grinder), putting in timber battens, insulating and sealing the insulation with a vapour barrier, putting in the floor and ceiling, building the bed frame (with help from Omar’s friend Jethro), kitchen, dry toilet and cabinets, making the bed mattress covers, doing the electric wiring, plumbing for sink and gas for hobs – was a really interesting and eye-opening process, particularly for someone like me with very little prior DIY experience.
It took about a month and a half from purchasing the van to setting off, with time in between also spent on PhD applications, and only cost about £1300+ at the end. I realised there’s an impossible trinity of budget, rapid, and good workmanship – we ended up compromising between making/having well-made/reliable items and budget, but doing things yourself really saves a lot of money. A pre-made kitchen set (sink, hob, tap and cupboard space) would have cost upwards of £300-400, and we made ours for about £120 with the most expensive purchase being the gas hobs. Similarly, the toilet cost us less than £50 (most expensive item being a urine diverter which separates pee from poo and hence makes our waste smell less, not require water and easy to dispose of) instead of £200 for a ready-made set. Beyond wishing we installed latches on cupboard doors instead of just catches (been quite a few incidences where stuff fell out while driving. Having dark soya sauce all over the floor isn’t too good…), everything’s been more or less working well and up to expectations.
Having to manage electricity (the leisure battery charges while driving but we also have a supplementary solar panel courtesy of James) and especially water supply makes us very conscious of our consumption. As a consequence of highly effective water-saving campaigns in Singapore, I have always been frugal with water use, especially with dish-washing. In the van, it’s taken to the next level, and we usually manage to wash up with about <2 litres of water – our grey water container is 5l.
All in all, the convenience and mobility of living in a home that is well, mobile, is pretty good, but the fuel consumption (though less than flying, which I’m trying to reduce) and ultimately privilege of this lifestyle weighs on my conscience. Also, while nomadic living may have had a long history, it’s usually done in larger family groups or tribes, and the lack of community embedded-ness is wearing in this lifestyle.
A spread of meats, cheeses, sides, wines, desserts, ordered from a catalogue to be delivered to the address, the prime dish fattened by maize grown by a family-verging-on-hunger halfway around the world, maize which replaced their previously diverse polycultures that kept them full and healthy.
Are we not living in a dystopia, right this very moment? Those who can, who are on the social and economic ladder, able to afford not just basic necessities, but all the accompanying extravagances. Those who cannot, hidden out of sight, invisible even on the news, suffering, scraping by, made to fight between themselves over scraps or words.
We, those that have some, think it is a time to come, a time yet come, a time that might never come. But whether we like it or not, it is here. We live in a world of absurd lived realities, inequalities stretched out on the spectrum to unprecedented dimensions, knowing that each is a direct result of the other. Because in a world that hails the ability to shift costs onto other, lesser, beings, including non-human nature, this is the inevitable outcome. Dystopian fictions written by authors in centuries past have finally come to pass.
Better yet, knowing what we now know, of the consequences of past actions, of the destruction wrought by premeditated extraction, of the revenge of the living world for our trespasses – we are still failing to act. Little effect though it would probably have anyway had it passed, the failure of all nations on this earth to agree that we, global humanity, need to do something different to how we, minority of the world population, have been operating particularly in the last few decades, means that in all likelihood, our current dystopian reality will just get worse.
Some, the more environmentally-inclined, the more aware and well-read, the ones who believe in the superiority and ability of (wo)mankind to pull through adversities, will imagine a world like the same, but cleaner and greener. Powered by clean, renewable energy. A sea of solar panels over deserts, a field of wind turbines over seas. “The science and technology is available, we are just lacking political will,” they say. Everyone will be wearing green clothes, made of bamboo, hemp, or other renewable, sustainable products. Everyone will be bringing their reusable cups for certified-sustainable-and-fair-trade coffee. Everyone will be consuming sustainable food, more vegetables, locally/organically grown, lab-grown meat and food made from solar-powered, hydrogen-eating bacteria, cricket burgers with chips. Food will be grown in buildings, buildings will be covered in greenery, it will be a sustainable, smart world we live in.
Others, the more critical and politically-socially-aware, the more radical and extreme, the ones who understand the structural, underlying causes of all these symptoms that are manifesting now, will imagine a world vastly different, almost unthinkable. Not just ‘greener’, but also equitable. Renewable energy, distributed to peoples, powering considerably reduced demand for energy. Simplicity, sufficiency, conviviality underpinning every consumption choice, made easier by changes to current institutions. No need to make money for the sake of making money. No need to save money for the sake of having more money. Radical democracy, municipal autonomy, nutritious food sufficiency through regional trading, closer consumer-producer relations. A systemic transformation of our current political and economic system resulting in a world that is more equitable, more resilient to the impending destructions of climate breakdown while reducing the actual inputs contributing to climate breakdown.
Or, perhaps more realistically, us barrelling down the path to 3, 4 or more ˚C of planet warming, along with more protectionism and far-right sentiments, increasing dehumanisation of other peoples. Ending with a world like ruled by countries like Panem, in Hunger Games, or a world like that in Mortal Engines or more realistically, like Children of Men (the film) with its tightened borders and harsh treatment of refugees, less global infertility (as of now).
We are living in a dystopia, whether we know it or not, where some have at the expense of the many. Those who have are still a considerable number, including you and me, but will slowly dwindle, if we continue down our current path, eventually resulting in stark, drastic inequalities and a ravaged, unliveable environment. If we take reformist actions, pursuing green growth and smart cities, we might put that ending off a few years, maybe decades, while deluding ourselves and perpetuating current dystopian realities. If we dare imagine a different world and take radical action against current hegemonic powers in political, economic, social institutions, then perhaps, a different outcome for humanity could be reached.
For 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.
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.
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:
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.
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)
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!
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
It’s been two months since I passed through the immigration counters of Changi Airport in Singapore, with the intention of not being back in a while. I had hoped to write this then, but the travelling and learning I was embarking on at that point were distracting me from settling and distilling some coherent thoughts. I don’t quite want to label this departure as an emigration, as a leaving ‘for good’, mainly because I have very few concrete plans on where I intend to be, but everyone, everywhere, seem to demand concrete answers. Particularly at border control in other countries you are trying to enter. It’s strange how easily and widely accepted it is that one needs a passport to cross into another country, since hard national borders are relatively new (compared to the beginnings of civilisation), and the introduction of passports across the world even more recent (after WWI). Without losing my cultural roots and influences of my childhood upbringing, I’m increasingly preferring to move away from nationalism and unwarranted patriotism (nobody got to choose where they wanted to be born), reminding myself not to ask “where are you from?” as the first (or second) question upon meeting someone new.
This line of thinking has been slowly developing over the past year, as can be seen in my previous posts about business, being cynical over green-washed sustainability, and economic growth and the environment. My ideas and thoughts are still constantly changing, evolving and being shaped by the new information I’m absorbing – I haven’t quite felt so ‘transformed’ since a decade ago perhaps, when I ‘discovered’ ecology. Where I used to partake in taking scenic photographs and inspiring landscapes, and concomitantly upload it onto social media, I now find that I cannot bring myself to do the same (I still take photos, for keepsakes, but no longer or rarely upload them for public consumption) – because it adds to this systemic portrayal of what a ‘good life’ is, idealises travel to ‘remote’ and ‘untouched’ places, contributes to mental health issues and global demand for more travel (i.e. CO2 emissions) and the unintended negative side effects of increased tourism.
Similarly, I find that my idea of ‘norm’ has shifted away from most peoples’ ideas of ‘norm’, that I’m starting to question what’s usually taken for granted as accepted or the standard to pursue, like is it necessarily good to own a (usually urban) property? While this thread of thought still has its circles, I don’t want to end up too radical to be able to connect or converse with the crowd. Part of the reason for moving ‘abroad’ (from Singapore), was to be able to at least find some people who share similar views/thoughts, to have a community that holds the same values and vision. To not be forced to conform, through the physical and mental limits of the Singaporean system. In this sense, I know I am very privileged to be able to ‘escape’ and give myself the opportunity to live differently.
Since finishing my work contract with NTU, I’ve been taking the time to think, read, absorb and try to consolidate the new learning, which should culminate in a few posts in the near future. It’s been good, having this freedom to be, and also the freedom arising from lacking any plans (of where to be, of what to do). While usually construed as laziness or ‘being picky’ (about jobs) by some, it’s romanticised by others, usually from my generation. And I do want to avoid any romanticisation about having this freedom, because it does also comes along with uncertainty over the future and associated anxieties, the worries of having to sustain oneself in a monetised economy without an income (and being able to get into countries which usually prefer the wealthy), and most of all the fears of inertia. Being located in a region with green spaces and (free) things to do outdoors, it becomes very easy to go with the flow of just doing and occupying time, without being constructive.
There is much to do for now, yet also very little. I feel the urgency of having to internalise the paradigm shift that has occurred/is occurring within me, of having to chart a course for myself, of having to address the global human inequality and environmental devastation by tackling the economic growth imperative. Some part of me believes it is all too late, that we will suffer the consequences of inaction by our elders (heatwaves and droughts, wildfires and floods, vanishing wildlife and a polluted earth), and the continuing complicity of our generation through ignorance (whether systematically planned or not). But I suppose there’s no point giving it all up to the doom of human civilisation, and we can still, in many ways, reduce the damage we are wrecking, so the earth and nature has a better chance of pulling through.
Leaving Singapore, the tiny island nation city state that managed to succeed economically, I will miss the little patches of trees that persist (for now) amidst the high-rises, the warm (though not clear) seas, the hawker centres, and volunteering with the NGO transient workers count too. There is very little to be said about missing the land, when the cityscape changes so quickly and often – most cities are interchangeable, and have similar structures and lifestyles. But most of all, what I will miss the least, the reason for leaving really, is being part of a rather insular, economic-growth-oriented society. Yet who knows what the future of Singapore will hold; being rather pragmatic, perhaps one day things Singapore will truly be the living example of a society that thrives without wreaking environmental destruction (in other places), without suppressing people’s needs and freedoms, without pursuing economic growth at all costs.
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).
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.