Thinking about biological diversity

As we journey in life, we keep changing and learning, pausing to reflect on how much we’ve internalised only at the end of every year, if that. With the entry of Facebook and the publishing of our lives on the platform, I find that I’m prompted to think and reflect on these changes more often, with every ‘memory’ I shared on the platform from years ago. This day 8 years ago, Facebook reminds me, I was helping to organise the inaugural Festival of Biodiversity in Singapore, prompted by a photo of an excited, younger me and Siva, my mentor.

The International Day for Biological Diversity was last week (22 May), proclaimed by the UN “to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues”.

Image taken from:

My relationship with the concept of biological diversity (‘biodiversity’) is quite central to my identity and what I think is (one of) my purpose in life, heavily influencing the decisions I make, and may be it will resonate with some.

City girl to biodiversity advocate

Similar to many others who grow up in a city (particularly a city-state), I was pretty much insulated and isolated from ‘nature’ as a kid, one of those who find it ‘icky’ to sit on the ground/dirt/earth, and rather squeamish about touching non-human creatures. I didn’t mind being outdoors, per se, but I didn’t have any profound interactions with nature as a child that made me think about our relationship with the planet we live on or the many other creatures we share it with. I was/am privileged in my majority Chinese, middle-class upbringing in Singapore, and the following was experienced from that position.

The ‘revelation’ came about in secondary school (13-16 yo), with a great biology teacher (Mr Lim, who wasn’t actually my biology teacher) introducing plants (a durian tree, while on a hike in MacRitchie, Central Catchment Nature Reserve), the interconnectedness of organisms, ecology, biodiversity, and all the cool facts about plants and animals. Thus I started exploring biodiversity and habitats (marine intertides, seagrasses, tropical forests…), reading up at the same time about biophilia (a hypothesis put forth by E.O. Wilson), nature deficit disorder (proposed by Richard Louv) and various other nature writings.

During this time in school, I did ecology-oriented research projects, organised field trips with other students, and volunteered on citizen science monitoring projects (Team Seagrass, Mega Marine Survey; I do miss the marine tropical intertidal areas, and all the wonderful people there…). Through these interactions, I realised these natural habitats and the biodiversity that live within are threatened by development (I still refuse to visit Universal Studios on Pulau Belakang Mati/Sentosa), and moved towards a space of raising awareness about our local biodiversity, their importance to urban residents, and generally educating about the value of nature/the outdoors.

The most visible of these efforts was helping to organise the Festival of Biodiversity when working at NParks during my gap year post A-levels. Following that, I did my undergraduate and master’s focusing on ecology and conservation, learning about the science and tools to protect natural habitats – protected areas, spatial planning, prioritisation, modelling, monitoring, reporting, evaluating effectiveness etc. I thought that my learning was more or less complete and I would just go into refining my understanding of these tools and issues, and trying to effect change in practice.

Towards decolonising biodiversity conservation

Over time (during/post-masters), I realised that the science wasn’t really delivering results (biodiversity is still rapidly declining, habitats still being lost at incredible rates etc.). People-centred conservation was important, since it is humans after all who effect changes, not what the science says or policies being written. I got interested in the human dimensions of conservation, coupled human and natural systems, socio-ecological systems etc., trying to understand human relationships to the land and biodiversity, and how conservation (as a field trying to make changes to the way people live their lives) need to take these into account.

As I delved into these topics, I also started reading on different conservation narratives and paradigms, realising that conservationists are not a homogenous entity. In what we want to achieve, I think we are similar – we are all for giving ‘nature’ breathing space and reducing ‘human’ pressures on the environment/planet, broadly speaking. How to achieve that, is where most of the differences lie. And so I was drawn into conversations and discussions about conservation philosophy, ecocentrism vs anthrocentrism, role of (neoliberal) capitalism etc, drawing on the Future of Conservation.

The point on this journey that I’m at right now, is realising that conservation is very much a colonial concept, and as practised now, is very much neo-colonialism in action (such as this). Biological diversity, as a western scientific concept, is but one way of viewing the abundance of life on earth. It is useful, but when we use the term biodiversity, we often preclude humans in the mix. But diversity of humans, and our diverse cultures and ways of seeing and understanding the world, is critically important to conservation. (Western/European) Colonisation has made us view people and nature as separate (amongst many other ills, like racial supremacy), but in many other (typically Indigenous) cultures, the interconnectness or wholeness of the system is emphasised.

Reading Conservation Revolution by Bram B├╝scher and Robert Fletcher has been refreshing, for bringing these ideas together and helping me understand the various links between economic development/growth/capitalism, conservation, and colonialism, and seeing solutions beyond more protected areas and marketisation/commodification of nature. I’m still very much in the process of learning about decolonisation (Decolonisation is not a metaphor by Tuck and Yang is a great read; also check out this The Conversation article on Decolonise Science: time to end another imperial era) and trying to understand it in the context of conservation and in Singapore. So goes on my journey and relationship with biodiversity, and I really hope to find again, that eager, excited younger self who was full of hope for positive change.

Understanding the mammoth task at hand

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

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

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

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

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