The future (I want) in Singapore

We’re in the middle of election season in Singapore; parliament was dissolved on 23 June, signalling the start, and polling day will be on 10 July. Many questions can be asked about why the election needs to be called right now, given the difficulties posed by the covid 19 pandemic and made worse for overseas voters (like me) who are unable to travel to exercise our right to vote. Nevertheless, the campaigns and manifestos put forth by candidates are important to engage with because they represent the direction Singapore wants to move towards.

Cartoon by Kevin Kallaugher, taken from here. To be honest, I think the time of modern nation-states is past. Most have only been around for the last 50 to 100 years (since European colonial powers ceded independence to their former colonies, but still wield substantial political and economic power over every country on this planet). Nonetheless, as part of such a nation-state at present, one should actively participate to forge the future we collectively want.

I think it’s been much more exciting this year compared to the last one in 2015 (which was my first time voting in Singapore’s GE), since every one of the 93 elected seats in parliament are being contested (so everyone who can will get to vote) and the quality of (social media) campaigns seems to have increased. I’m really not a political commentator nor do I follow any political party closely enough to comment about the differences between this and the previous election, beyond just my personal experience that this year’s has more hype in it. It has though, been really encouraging to see the highlighting of social structural inequality in Singapore, and proposed policy measures to tackle these issues from most parties. (Slightly less encouraging to see the xenophobia take centre stage at times though).

Where’s climate change?

Yet many other issues – like our treatment of foreign workers – seem to have been sidelined in all the rhetoric about overcoming crises, having a great future, jobs and whatnot. The most glaring omission is perhaps any mention of climate change in any discussion…

From Twitter user @Laurie_Garrett, posted on 17 June, when temperatures in Siberia hit 32˚C; original cartoon (only showing covid-19 and recession) by Graeme MacKay for The Hamilton Spectator on 11 March 2020. I had actually first come across this cartoon but with ‘biodiversity loss’ in a bigger wave behind climate change, but after spending 30 mins scouring the internet trying to find it again, I gave up.

In a 5-yearly discussion about how our future will be directed, one would think that this very major threat – potentially for the survival of, if not our species, then at the least civilisation as we know it – the earth is facing at the moment would feature. Singapore isn’t climate-denying; that much is known. The government had previously pledged to spend SGD 100 billion on infrastructure to adapt to climate change (I know they used the word mitigate but really, they mean adapt to the effects of climate change, like building sea walls, polders, reclaiming islands etc. Not mitigate (to reduce) the effects of climate change). But yes, we need to talk about mitigation!

The petrochemical industry on Jurong Island is the leading oil trading/refining hub in Asia, within top five globally. The industry doesn’t just import crude oil, refine it, and export it to the rest of the world, they’re also involved in building fossil fuel extraction infrastructure (like oil rigs). And 25% of globally-traded goods pass through our port! Cargo ships use the dirtiest fuel and contribute greatly to CO2 emissions [Read more in this great NewNaratif article].

Our banks finance coal plants, oil palm or other cash crop plantations in the region (and sometimes further afield). To ‘develop’ Singapore, sand is imported from our neighbours, to the detriment of the communities from whom land is literally being taken from underfoot. 90% of our food supply is also imported, a large proportion of which is also from around the Southeast Asian region. These activities all contribute to climate change (by changing planetary dynamics) and are affected by the same. If we take climate change seriously for what it is – I don’t know how one does not, I spent days being miserable and angry about the recent 30+˚C temperatures in the Arctic circle – then we need to do something about it. It’s something that should be mentioned in manifestos and shouted about over loudspeakers and on social media campaigns!

The good people at SG Climate Rally and Speak for Climate have co-organised the campaign Greenwatch, producing a climate scorecard for each of the contesting political parties. On a score ranging from -90 to 90, no party did particularly well…

What future do we want?

There’s so much talk about the post-covid future, the economy, jobs, development etc. The assumption though, is that we all want ‘development’, and ‘progress’. It is after all, in our national pledge.

We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve, happiness, prosperity, and progress for our nation. 

Who is development (equivalent to progress?) pursued for though, and to what ends? Supposedly, the pursuit of development (which manifests itself in chasing after constant economic growth, as in GDP), is to improve peoples’ lives, increase standards and quality of well-being and ultimately to allow everyone(?) to live decent and dignified lives.

On one level, past a certain point, happiness/well-being/life satisfaction does not concomitantly increase with Gross Domestic Product (used as a measure of development) – known as the Easterlin paradox.

Image taken from this Medium article authored by Jack Herring- The Social Case for Degrowth, but which was (probably?) taken from the book Degrowth (The economy: Key Ideas) by Giorgos Kallis, Figure 4.2 of chapter 4 The Case for Degrowth.

Singapore’s GDP per capita in 2018, according to Google, is USD 64,581.94, and according to a poll reported in September 2019, half of the population isn’t very satisfied with their lives.

On another level, development is a concept introduced by USA president Henry Truman in his inaugural speech in 1949 – to be specific, he described most of the world as ‘underdeveloped’ and therefore should follow the Western mode of development to industrialise and achieve a higher standard of living, and so reduce suffering. I’m no longer so naive as to think that the USA (or UK) is a benevolent nation that wants to help poor people around the world. Through the past few months/years of reading into colonialism, postcolonial and decolonial studies, I fully see development as neo-colonialism, whereby concepts and schools of thought, ways of knowing, relating to others, and seeing the world are being reshaped and refashioned after Western ways (internal colonialism or colonisation of the mind – Tuck and Yang 2012; Fanon 1963), and where resources (land, people, ideas etc.) are extracted to benefit those in power.

Hence, I see development not as a ‘good’ thing, but as something to be questioned (which I have tried to explore and understand in previous writings). Development serves to entrench those already in power, exacerbating inequalities, does not make us (the general population) happier, and at the expense of our forests and biodiversity.

Singapore has lost 46% of her butterflies (Theng et al 2020), 22% of recorded plants (Kristensen et al 2020), and an overall loss of at least 28% of fish, bird and mammal species (Brook et al 2003). Since being colonised by the British in 1819, by 1990, more than 99% of our original forests have been lost (Corlett 1992). And even the remaining few areas of secondary forest are being lost to development and progress as we speak.

Read the rest of the Twitter thread here.

Needless to say, the loss of forests (albeit at a larger scale) contributes to climate change, while the localised effects are felt immediately quite noticeably – temperatures under forest canopy are lower than that in open space by 1.7˚C on average, up to a maximum of 4.1˚C cooler (De Frene et al 2019). Sure, we could (and should) push for more Environmental Impact Assessments before development starts, but that also has its issues. Rather than play the game on their rules, it’s time perhaps, to start questioning if we even need to play the game.

A future that is socially and environmentally just

I am quite well aware that at this point in time, any candidate questioning the need for economic growth and development would not get very far politically. After all, this is exactly what our education system and larger society conditioning was meant to achieve – to produce good workers for the economy so that growth can continue to be pursued.

– Spring, J. (2011) A New Paradigm for Teaching in (Ed. Rossatto) Teaching for Global Community: Overcoming Divide and Conquer Strategies of the Oppressor, p94.

But while we acknowledge the present political unfeasibility, it doesn’t mean that we should not discuss radical alternatives. What is the future that we, the people of the community, want to see and to build? Food sufficiency? Then why not have children learn more about growing food, and doing that in their school gardens? (Some schools have started these initiatives, and it supported by NParks) A caring community? Then we need to reduce incentives for competitive behaviour (humans are not inherently selfish and competitive, no matter what neoclassical economists and the political elite try and tell you).

At the end of the day, what is it that matters? I would think the answer should be a planet we can all live and thrive on. If the trend of temperatures exceeding 30˚C in Siberia when it should be closer to 0˚C continues, then this will not be achievable. ‘Progress’ caused and continues to contribute to climate change1; ‘progress’ for some will always be at the expense of others (which is how the political economic system of capitalism works). If we want social justice, equitable outcomes for all and not not just the few (be they Singaporean citizens or not), if we want climate and environmental justice, then we need a new system. One that doesn’t rely on more development, whether it’s in our country, or enacted in other places by our companies. Without social and environmental justice (which cannot and should not be seen as separate, really), we. have. no. future.

This ain’t the future I want. Cartoon from here.

1 There is no evidence of absolute decoupling between resource/energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, i.e. to reduce GHG emissions we will need to reduce resource/energy use (Haberl et al 2020). There is also little evidence of absolute decoupling between GDP and resource/energy use (Ward et al 2016), particularly when taking into account embodied resources, where material production or extraction takes place overseas and is externalised.

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