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: https://www.cbd.int/idb/2020

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 Büscher 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.

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