Time for radical change

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

Here’s the film if watching is preferable to reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.