Our current dystopian reality

Glitzy shop window displaying 3-digits priced fashion and gifts, an inadequately-dressed young woman curled on cardboard in front of it, her sole bag of possessions as a pillow.

The momentary excitement on a child’s face, as it rips open packaging to reveal a £35-priced Disney doll, produced by weary hands paid £0.01 for the work.

A spread of meats, cheeses, sides, wines, desserts, ordered from a catalogue to be delivered to the address, the prime dish fattened by maize grown by a family-verging-on-hunger halfway around the world, maize which replaced their previously diverse polycultures that kept them full and healthy.

Barbed wire fences and walls, separating the haves and have-nots, separating dreams and despair, separating children from caretakers.

Pictures of the Year
Image taken by Kim Kyung Hoon from Reuters. See: http://time.com/5464560/caravan-mexico-border-iconic-photo/

Are we not living in a dystopia, right this very moment? Those who can, who are on the social and economic ladder, able to afford not just basic necessities, but all the accompanying extravagances. Those who cannot, hidden out of sight, invisible even on the news, suffering, scraping by, made to fight between themselves over scraps or words.

We, those that have some, think it is a time to come, a time yet come, a time that might never come. But whether we like it or not, it is here. We live in a world of absurd lived realities, inequalities stretched out on the spectrum to unprecedented dimensions, knowing that each is a direct result of the other. Because in a world that hails the ability to shift costs onto other, lesser, beings, including non-human nature, this is the inevitable outcome. Dystopian fictions written by authors in centuries past have finally come to pass.

Better yet, knowing what we now know, of the consequences of past actions, of the destruction wrought by premeditated extraction, of the revenge of the living world for our trespasses – we are still failing to act. Little effect though it would probably have anyway had it passed, the failure of all nations on this earth to agree that we, global humanity, need to do something different to how we, minority of the world population, have been operating particularly in the last few decades, means that in all likelihood, our current dystopian reality will just get worse.

As the climate gets more unpredictable, with more frequent, more severe, more unstable weather, the environmental stresses are exacerbated, social resilience further eroded. Failure to grow crops, obtain drinking water, secure a shelter, earn a living will make ‘status quo’, ‘Business As Usual’ impossible. And so, things will change, and current predictions based on linear projections will not hold true. Which path would we go down?

Some, the more environmentally-inclined, the more aware and well-read, the ones who believe in the superiority and ability of (wo)mankind to pull through adversities, will imagine a world like the same, but cleaner and greener. Powered by clean, renewable energy. A sea of solar panels over deserts, a field of wind turbines over seas. “The science and technology is available, we are just lacking political will,” they say. Everyone will be wearing green clothes, made of bamboo, hemp, or other renewable, sustainable products. Everyone will be bringing their reusable cups for certified-sustainable-and-fair-trade coffee. Everyone will be consuming sustainable food, more vegetables, locally/organically grown, lab-grown meat and food made from solar-powered, hydrogen-eating bacteria, cricket burgers with chips. Food will be grown in buildings, buildings will be covered in greenery, it will be a sustainable, smart world we live in.

Others, the more critical and politically-socially-aware, the more radical and extreme, the ones who understand the structural, underlying causes of all these symptoms that are manifesting now, will imagine a world vastly different, almost unthinkable. Not just ‘greener’, but also equitable. Renewable energy, distributed to peoples, powering considerably reduced demand for energy. Simplicity, sufficiency, conviviality underpinning every consumption choice, made easier by changes to current institutions. No need to make money for the sake of making money. No need to save money for the sake of having more money. Radical democracy, municipal autonomy, nutritious food sufficiency through regional trading, closer consumer-producer relations. A systemic transformation of our current political and economic system resulting in a world that is more equitable, more resilient to the impending destructions of climate breakdown while reducing the actual inputs contributing to climate breakdown.

Or, perhaps more realistically, us barrelling down the path to 3, 4 or more ˚C of planet warming, along with more protectionism and far-right sentiments, increasing dehumanisation of other peoples. Ending with a world like ruled by countries like Panem, in Hunger Games, or a world like that in Mortal Engines or more realistically, like Children of Men (the film) with its tightened borders and harsh treatment of refugees, less global infertility (as of now).

We are living in a dystopia, whether we know it or not, where some have at the expense of the many. Those who have are still a considerable number, including you and me, but will slowly dwindle, if we continue down our current path, eventually resulting in stark, drastic inequalities and a ravaged, unliveable environment. If we take reformist actions, pursuing green growth and smart cities, we might put that ending off a few years, maybe decades, while deluding ourselves and perpetuating current dystopian realities. If we dare imagine a different world and take radical action against current hegemonic powers in political, economic, social institutions, then perhaps, a different outcome for humanity could be reached.


For a comprehensive, very readable understanding of climate change, its past, present and future, check out Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik’s The Memory We Could Be.

For an understanding of what radical change could look like, check out the Degrowth movement.

If you’ve not heard of the Extinction Rebellion, it’s worth checking out too.

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.

 

A skeptic’s perspective of the Responsible Business Forum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

value-for-money1
Go Google image CSR cartoons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

greenwashing-cartoon
Check out this post on greenwashing here.

 

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 😂