Response to Commentary: Climate action is our generation’s 1965

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.

It is undeniable that neoliberal capitalism has failed us, as humans, a country, and the whole planet Earth. What we need now, is to have the courage to imagine a better,fairer, and climate-stableworld. Planetary boundaries are what they say they are – limits, and our economic system has to learn to play within these limits. Another compelling reason why the same economic thinking won’t get us out of this mess? Because we already knew about global warming by the late 1970s, but those in higher seats of power decided that growing the economy was more important. Are we going to repeat the same mistake, despite knowing the severe repercussions? 


Image found on Google search, taken from: https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/degrowth-is-it-useful-or-feasible/

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