To ‘protect’ our planet earth, we need to pursue degrowth

We’ve just celebrated Earth Day not long ago, and while it’s a good time to share a pretty picture and an inspiring message, it’s also a good time to think about what we (as a collective human race) are doing about one of the biggest challenges of our age – declining biodiversity and planet health. There are many environmental issues, and while they subsisted on the fringes in the past, they’re increasingly discussed in the mainstream now, not least because of climate change and plastic pollution. Yet, they are still far removed from being considered as ‘political’ issues, and are discussed as though they are rodents on an island that need to be eradicated; an isolated problem that can be dealt with through a targeted solution. I don’t intend to belittle the efforts, in fact my fullest respect and admiration to the people who achieved this conservation success and provided some optimism for the rest of us. Rather, I just wanted to point out that most of the problems (ecological and social) we now face today are all interlinked particularly in their root cause, and what we, as ecologists, environmentalists, conservationists, nature-lovers, people who care about other people (is there a specific term for what should be innate in us all?) etc, should be doing, is talking more and doing more about it. And that root cause is indubitably, Capitalism and the relentless pursuit of economic growth.

When I started becoming aware of biodiversity conservation and environmental issues just after finishing junior college (17-18 yo), I understood it mainly from a conservation vs. urban development perspective in Singapore. My knowledge and understanding then slowly grew to encompass the John Muir wilderness movement in America in the latter part of the 19th century, reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and realising how that took the form of ‘fortress conservation’ that removed indigenous people to ‘protect’ nature. That being unacceptable now, conservation then moved towards finding equitable solutions for humans and nature (local/community based conservation) and developing economic tools (valuing nature through ecosystem services). While that’s good and important, particularly engaging with local stakeholders and understanding their perceptions, rarely do we even mention the underlying series of events that have led to the state we’re in.

In trying to understand the flagrant habitat destruction (especially in the tropics), or pollution (whether air, soil or water), or biodiversity loss, we talk about underlying drivers, like governmental policies and economic incentives. Seldom though, do we question this seemingly global imperative for economic growth and efficiency that drive these policies and incentives. Nor do we ask when was it that this became the norm across all countries and societies, and hailed as progress. If we truly want to uncover how this stage was set, we have to go back centuries, and cover concepts such as colonialism, white supremacy, american imperialism, the art of ‘public relations’… We need to think about how multinational corporations, advertising, cheap goods, exploited labourers, displaced and/or oppressed peoples, shift of framing from citizens to consumers, propaganda, partial media, capitalism, suppression of communism (through Vietnam war and Cuban war for e.g.), debt and loans are all linked – and how they collectively work to dis-empower communities, prevent public expression of dissent, and condition us to accept our current reality as the only reality. I’ve been doing a lot more reading and understanding of these aspects in the past year, trying to accommodate these revelations into my world view.

These ideas and concepts are radical and push one away from the mainstream, and if not delivered well and coherently, could just be brushed aside as conspiracy theories. But I am increasingly seeing the truth and inter-connectedness between all these superficially vastly different issues, and am also seeing how different groups fighting for their own rights and justice – women’s, LGBT+, environmental, indigenous, disabled and other marginalised groups – need to come together and collectively fight against the current system that entrenches these inequalities.

I had always been taught to think that environmental protection comes after economic growth, that conservation is a triage because we have scarce resources and need to pick our battles, that if we don’t go with the (corporate) flow, we’ll just lose everything. Protecting intact natural areas, running species recovery programmes, and valuing our natural capital; switching to more energy efficient options, choosing more ‘sustainable’ options and using more reusables instead of disposables. They all have their part to play in stemming the decline, and that was what I thought all conservation stood for – trying to reduce the rate of loss and degradation of the natural world. Until I realised that I was missing the forest for the trees.

Our lives have become overrun by corporations driving the engine of capitalism through consumerism. From the building of malls (private property) that takes away public common space (hearteningly enough people get around it by just picnicking in the little green spaces tucked around buildings), to high rents forcing out small independents and increasing the reach of huge corporations and chains, to relentless advertising telling us that we need this latest gadget or fashion to project the right image of a successful and rich consumer. Meanwhile, ecologists and conservationists have been siloed into a box where we do triage and prioritisation plans, educational and outreach roadshows that remind society of our natural heritage and their reliance on a functioning ecosystem and campaigning against one ‘development’ project or another extractive industry, while still feeding the broken system (though some less than others).

We cannot talk about sustainability in the same breath as continued economic growth. Those who imagine a future where technology has freed us all from the problems of environmental devastation and those who talk about our current reality as progress speak from privileged positions that fail to take into account actual realities. This isn’t a view just espoused by ‘sustainable’ businesses and cities that envision a ‘sustainable’ future; it’s also a view embodied in academia, with this Sanderson et al. (2018) paper on achieving a tranformative breakthrough moment for biodiversity conservation based on modern urban lifestyles. I cannot write as eloquently on this topic as others can, so this is a great article for anyone who thinks that ecomodernism (“an environmental philosophy which argues that humans can protect nature by using technology to “decouple” anthropogenic impacts from the natural world” – Wiki) is the way forward.

What can we, as normal citizens, do then? We need to start taking back from corporations and decreasing their power, while empowering local communities. We can take up Mark Boyle’s 3Rs: Resist, Revolt and Rewild. Staying on this high-speed neoliberal capitalist train will lead us to our doom; the tracks will halt at some point, we just don’t know when. It is time to start thinking of alternative ways of living that is less reliant on the global economic system, time to start considering a future without economic growth, time to start living as we should on a finite and shared planet Earth.

Some further food for thought:
Socialism Without Growth – An academic paper I came across randomly that started this whole journey (not open access unfortunately)

In Defense of Degrowth – the next bit of fairly light reading (by the same author) which really cemented the whole degrowth idea for me (free e-book)

Prosperity Without Growth – very nice, easy reading about human well-being and the false illusion that we need growth to achieve it (not free but worth it)

Doughnut Economics – a relatively new book that talks about these concepts from an economist’s perspective (not free but also worth it)

And this great rap that states very simply and beautifully all that’s wrong now.

 

Becoming a ‘green’ Grinch

It was a slow but gradual descent into cynicism and jadedness, starting probably after I finished junior college back in 2010. I had decided that conservation of the environment was my calling, to be a voice for the environment because nature can’t speak for itself, and ecology was my chosen field (as opposed to ‘environmental sciences’) because I wanted to stick with biology as a core. Over the years though, through my gap 1.5 years working at the zoo’s educational department, the biodiversity museum and the national biodiversity centre, then subsequent degree in natural sciences (zoology/ecology/palaeontology) and research masters (deforestation modelling), and now working as a research assistant (forest fire modelling in a coupled-human-natural systems lab), I’ve changed. I’ve come to accept that while understanding biology and ecology is important and fundamental in conservation, the major roadblocks in conservation have little to do with these scientific fundamentals, and more to do with human nature and psychology, our propensity for greed and the capitalist system that’s so ingrained in modern life. The knowledge that I gain and the news that I hear all make it increasingly harder for me to be genuinely happy or excited about ‘green initiatives’.

When I read social media posts now, of ‘sustainable businesses’ or of various ‘green’ initiatives, I can’t help but make a cynical remark, if just to myself. I cannot bring myself to ‘like’ posts for their simplicity in ‘wanting to save the world’ anymore, because while they’re made with good intentions, they’re masking the deeper need for fundamental change. I don’t just want a society that recycles more, or wastes less food, or cuts its plastic bag use – and only if made convenient/mandatory. I don’t want to just live and work in buildings that are rated as ‘green’ and ‘environmentally friendly’, because it uses some renewable energy or has some plants on it – yet the people who live/work there are not conscious of the environment. I don’t want to live in a society in which you can air your views and campaign and get some advertising and outreach – but only if you don’t rock the boat of aspiring for economic prosperity (and/or particularly in Singapore, not rock the political boat either).

I get it. Trying to get urbanites (who interact mostly in the built environment, whose nature/outdoor experiences are usually isolated as holidays, or rather ‘other places’ with pretty scenery to instagram) to be more environmentally and nature-conscious is a difficult job. It is difficult to communicate the intricate interactions between physical surroundings and personal life, environment further afield and daily living, the way the whole world is connected, the earth the sky the land the people the waters. And what more can we do but throw more education and outreach activities and hope that some of them catch?

I’ve started volunteering with a migrant worker NGO, where I still get my sense of “we need to do something about this and change it’ , where I feel a sense of injustice and outrage at how migrant workers are (mis)treated but also a sense of determination and inspiration to make things better. Because I feel like changes here will actually lead to real changes that improve the workers’ lives. I watched a short documentary titled 1987: Untracing the conspiracy which subsequently led to me attending a solidarity for Jolovan Wham event at Hong Lim Park (Singapore’s speakers corner, the only patch of land in the country on which you’re legally allowed to hold a public protest). It’s my first time there as a participant, having never really wanted to be known or associated as an activist. I thought that one should try and work with major organisations to try and change things for the better, and these environmental activists, tree huggers, Greenpeace advocates, were too radical. I wanted to be seen as a moderate, someone reasonable who can see both sides of the coin, but would work for one in a logical, reasonable, scientific manner.

Now though, I feel like I’ve outgrown the de-politicisation of ecology/environmentalism (a term/concept I picked up from reading about the degrowth alternative), and I want more drastic actions. An attack on consumerism and economic growth, rather than the same rhetoric about reducing waste, or recycling goods; a conscious change in lifestyle choice, rather than just picking the easiest or most convenient; a deeper understanding of how we’re connected to this earth we share, rather than just living and passing through this earth as though our lives don’t matter.

I have no (quick) solutions to the very real and tangible problems we have out there, and I do feel that yes every little step is still a move in the right direction, and am glad we have people out there who spend much of their time and effort fighting battles for the good of the environment. I cannot deny though, that I am now increasingly becoming not just a grinch (with the non-environmentally-conscious about environmental/ethical issues), but a grinch of a grinch.

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Image taken from pinterest

 

Some honest reflections: Part two – Inequality, injustice, and escaping the System

I am no economist, nor do I really know very much or in great detail about the economics or the politics behind such issues. What I do know though, is that I have never been fully satisfied with the capitalistic lifestyle offered, and the more I learn about the world, the more outraged I get at the injustices that still exist. The world has always been an unequal place, I don’t know enough to say objectively that we’re better off or worse off than other times in history, but I somehow feel like we’re not that much better off, despite all the technological and social advances.

It seems almost juvenile to be raging over the age old problem of inequality.  “Mummy it’s not fair!” What ever happened to that child-like sense of justice and fairness that used to exist? Has social conditioning reduced us to accepting that life is never fair and we can’t do anything about it and let it be so? Or has the System succeeded in throwing endless distractions at us so we just keep our minds off things that truly matter? I use the word ‘System’ here because I know no better term to describe this world we (or I) live in. If I have to define it, I can only say I’m referring to governments, the capitalist system, corporations’ power, social norms, and everything else that defines or appears to define how we live.

The past few months, I’ve been suffused with journalism about the plight of the Rohingyas, educating myself about what’s happening between Palestine and Israel, following the Guardian’s feature series on The Defenders, and reading articles about land grabbing by governments and corporations, such as experienced by the Shuar people in Ecuador. Meanwhile, we just live our lives as usual, a little shaken occasionally perhaps, by bombings and attacks in the UK and USA, but still continually consuming.

I’ve become jaded with the way we’re told to live, with the way lives are led in Singapore, with capitalism, with how capitalism is really the master of all our lives. I’ve always hated shopping, though the stereotype constantly perpetuated about women is that women enjoy shopping. And now that I’m older and more aware, I realise I hate advertisements for telling me what I need when I really don’t need those things, I dislike shopping malls for being the face of capitalism (and because they get ridiculously crowded), and most of all, it infuriates me that these items are put on display with a price tag that reflects neither the true environmental nor social cost. (People get killed for protesting the opening of a mine, and many more suffer in the mines from which metals are extracted to produce our things.) But none of us will think twice about how the items were made, because hey look it’s on 50% discount, such a good deal!

We’ve been told from young, in Singapore, to study hard, to do well in school, so we can get a good degree and good jobs. True, yes we need to have some economic security to feed ourselves and look after ourselves. But ultimately, to what end? The endless chase for paper qualifications is still just about getting money and more money, and though success may be more broadly defined now than before, it still refers to something tangible, monetisable. Just being a good decent human being with morals and sound values is not valued.

I could go on a rant about Singapore, inequality in wages, prices, and how people buy too much. But the venting wouldn’t serve much purpose. We’ve been numbed and sedated. We spend our energies playing the game of trying to save a few dollars by paying with a certain credit card, or getting a discount with another card. But I am starting to think that this capitalist system doesn’t work, and we should all stop trying to play its game. I don’t know of any alternative that might work, but continuing to live the way we’ve been living merely serves to make the rich richer, give them power to marginalise the poor, and make the poor poorer.

We need systemic change, a cultural shift, a paradigm shift, an economic shift, because this current system has failed environmentally and socially. The rich and the powerful who want to get even richer are able to claim ownership of land and natural resources, extract whatever monetisable resources while trashing the environment, and leave the place polluted and unliveable for the poor people who had been living there and living off the environment agreeably the whole time. While on the other end of the chain, we the consumers who are far removed from such natural resources because we live in built-up cities, merely move money around the system and line the pockets of the rich by buying items made from those natural resources while the injustices to the environment and the people are left unaccounted for. And I know all that I’m saying isn’t new, but I guess it’s the first time I’m really feeling the pressure of the System to conform and to live as I’ve been told to live (since I’m no longer a student but a working adult), working as a cog in the System till I get so entrenched with my credit cards and insurance premiums that I cannot get out of it.

I thought I was just unhappy with the Singaporean system that makes me feel trapped, but I realise it’s the entire System which most of this world now runs on. I don’t know just yet what I could do, but I know I won’t be satisfied with just living as I’ve always lived and doing what I’ve always done, and just trying to minimise my impact on the earth by avoiding unsustainable products, while ultimately feeding the System.

Preaching for the environment

How can we reach out to more people about the need for a more environmentally-friendly way of living? The UN designated 5 June to be World Environment Day, a day to Celebrate Nature, a reminder to go outside and be #withnature. For some organisations, the day can be a huge and important event – but for most of us, even those who work on environmental issues, it’s mostly just like any another day. Nothing like the hype of Christmas, or Chinese New Year, which of course have the power of commercialisation and capitalism behind them. Without excessive banners and advertisements telling us to not shop for nature, to spend less on unnecessary goods and resources, or to go out and enjoy nature for free, how else can we reach out to the larger, unconverted population?

While I was in the UK, belonging to a religious faith seemed to be rather niche. It does make you think that trying to spread the environmental message through religious communities would be rather futile, since they themselves seem to be facing difficulties trying to sell their message to the masses. However globally, according to a Pew Research Centre study in 2012, 8 out of 10 people declare themselves affiliated to a religious organisation. That’s quite a lot of people who look to someone else for guidance on how to live.

While there are many examples of religious communities protecting nature, from Cambodian Buddhist monks and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Churches protecting community forests, to Tibetan Buddhist monks protecting snow leopards from poaching and Malaysian mosques promoting sea turtle conservation, there are fewer examples of religious communities preaching general environmental messages. Active conservation efforts for habitat or species protection are to be lauded and publicised as great examples, but the problem we face in this day and age is a bigger one, that of general excessive consumption of resources at every level, the promotion of unfettered consumption, and the lack of understanding of the interdependence of every living (and non-living) entity on this earth.

That is not to say that it doesn’t exist; most famously, the Roman Catholic church’s Pope Francis published his papal encyclical (Laudato Si) in 2015 on caring for the environment, which he gave to US President Donald Trump recently. But I doubt Trump would read it, as would most Catholics; I’ll confess I’ve barely read it, but the first chapter at least provides a very good and general basis of all the environmental and social injustices in our world today.  Unless the message is constantly reinforced through weekly sermons, I’m not sure how much actually gets through to the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world. I was listening to one of the priests talking about baptism and the river Jordan one Sunday, but he never made mention of the fact that the same river barely exists now. And yet, if he were to mention it, how can he draw the link from that to how we live comfortably here in Singapore? Priests aren’t ecology teachers.

When there are no specific problems, like the poaching of wild animals or the cutting down of local forests, how does one preach the need to take care of the environment, to reduce mindless consumption and waste of resources and energy, and be heard and understood and followed? In an urban setting, which drives most of these problems, how does one reach out to the masses and get everyone to live a more thoughtful, environmentally (and socially) friendly life?

Organised religion has its critics, and it may or may not benefit the environmental cause, but I feel like with its reach, surely it would be a start. Like this solar-powered mosque in Morocco. I do think though, that for conservation and the larger environmental movement to succeed, any wonton destruction has to be as taboo as murder.

A question often asked is, why protect wildlife? Development can improve lives so why forgo it in place of killing off a few species? One can go through all the different arguments – its economic worth, its value importance for future generations or simply its beauty. But the powerful answer must be because it is part of our culture and therefore part of our beliefs and even our own identify. Once it’s second nature and part of a value system, no one will ever again ask the question why protect it.

-Bradnee Chambers, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals