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.

 

A skeptic’s perspective of the Responsible Business Forum

I recently attended the 6th Responsible Business Forum for Sustainable Development (22-23 Nov 2017), organised by Global Initiatives and UNDP. While not a fan of (big) businesses and the profit-seeking motives they represent, I went because I thought it might be informative, a glimpse into this other world that’s so different from mine, and because I do care for some of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Disclaimer: I went as a staff of NTU on a complimentary ticket provided by Global Initiatives, but thoughts and views presented are mine and (definitely) do not represent those of the institution.

un-sustainable-development-goals_sdgs_new
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals defined in 2015 to be achieved by 2030.

To the organisers’ credit, the conference was well-organised, and they did try to walk the talk by being zero single-use plastics, trying to go zero waste (don’t know if achieved, though they claimed, even before lunch started, that it was zero waste), and zero carbon (unlikely to be achieved given the amount of technology used?). All meals were also vegetarian and supposedly locally-sourced.

However, ‘responsible business’ to me seems an oxymoron, and the two days were filled with lots of mutual back-patting, hypocritical and/or delusional presentations and speeches. It all sounds good: striving for universal well-being goals (don’t particularly like the word ‘development’ and all the implied assumptions and connotations), leaving no one behind. The SDGs were sold as ‘insurance for businesses’ to ‘stay ahead of the curve’ (what curve? You mean to stay as the top 1% owning 50% of the world by avoiding taxes?) because they (SDGs) are good for growth, the planet and people.

I’m not sure, really. One of the main reasons for the huge profits some companies make is the exploitation of the environment, natural resources and people, which result in the need for well, most if not all the Sustainable Development Goals? Are companies themselves not the ones creating poverty, by destroying the environment on which people’s livelihoods depended on, making them reliant on our economic system (and therefore poor) and suppressing wages or relocating to countries which have lower wages or environmental standards? But no point crying over spilt milk, we have reached the stage we are at now, so let’s just move on and try to make things better. Isn’t it great businesses are now on board to make the world better?

Sure, but only if it aligns with their bottom line. This was one of the main things I was hearing over the two days, during the SDG workshops. There were three sessions of 5-6 workshops that covered each SDG, and I chose to attend SDG 1 Reducing poverty, SDG 2 Sustainable cities and communities and SDG 15 Forest and biodiversity restoration. At each workshop, after a quick presentation by panelists and q&a, delegates were told to come up with suggestions addressing questions of Scaling up, Measuring and Interconnectivity, some of which would then be chosen by the workshop facilitator to be presented and voted on by all delegates subsequently. Whilst giving suggestions (if you had the opportunity to, since some people like hearing their voices and dominating discussions), there was a constant reminder that these solutions had to appeal to businesses, work for their agenda and basically make money for them.

Some of the goals do just that. SDG 7 Clean and affordable energy, SDG 8 Decent work and economic growth, or even SDG 13 Climate action for examples. They help companies be more efficient and protect their businesses (and profits). Most though, don’t align that well with their bottom line, and become PR/CSR (Public Relation/Corporate Social Responsibility) exercises.

value-for-money1
Go Google image CSR cartoons.

I think that businesses can be responsible and make impact to achieve the SDGs, if they’re small and not beholden to shareholders. Yet they often lack the monetary financing because most of these objectives are not profit-making. The huge multi national corporations (MNCs) that could make an impact, on the other hand, do often have foundations to do their CSR work (and avoid taxes), funded by probably leaching off the very communities whose environment they’ve destroyed or people they’ve underpaid. They also have rather nice and inspiring videos of examples where they’re doing great work for poverty alleviation or biodiversity restoration, as well as grand commitments to zero deforestation, zero slavery, or 100% sustainable sources.

But how can we know if businesses deliver on their supposed social/environmental responsibility? Can we trust them to have done what they say they’ve done? How can large MNCs ensure supply chain compliance? It’s not difficult to make fancy slide shows and videos, to showcase a particular example of how you’ve done things well while hiding all the other failures to commit to SDGs. Also outcomes and numbers are one thing, actual impact another. Interface was the only company that convinced me they were trying to improve people’s lives and clean up the environment, mainly because they are still trying to measure their impact, rather than just reporting on outcomes and numbers and expecting to be lauded.

HP claims to be “creating a brighter future through actions, solutions and technology that makes life better for everyone, everywhere.”, with programmes to provide access to IT and quality education to children living in rural areas. But how does one take their word and accept them as responsible companies, when they also contribute to Israel’s oppression of Palestians? Can one talk about providing quality education for children worldwide when at the same time they’re fueling conflict and disrupting childhoods in other countries?

Can businesses be responsible? Can we have sustainability and profitability? Moving on the larger questions, is sustainable development even possible for all? Some countries might be able to meet their country targets but often by exporting externalities (as most of the global North have done). Much of what we’ve achieved as so-called progress or development is done by trampling on others who have less than we do, by exporting jobs or pollution we don’t want to countries who cannot afford to say the same. Can cities be sustainable? Should we encourage the growth of more cities? The panelists all talked about big data, technology, efficiency, and partnerships. But not people, communities, or liveability, nor about mental health, well being, nature, or ecological footprint. If questions were raised, they were waved away quickly to more lauding of green and energy efficient buildings and SMART cities.

The last workshop I attended on forest and biodiversity restoration summed up the experience for me. Not really being aligned with the bottom line, the workshop was largely presented and attended by NGOs and academics, with only a few business people around. It was also the only workshop in which everyone around the table could voice their opinion and listened respectfully to ideas presented.

To be honest, I think achieving the SDGs isn’t impossible. If businesses really want to be responsible, they should be willing to take a cut of profits, pay what’s due to the people and the environment, re-invest in environmental protection and restoration (hire some ecologists, marine biologists, and social scientists!) and stop harping about their bottom line. But that I think, would probably be impossible.

greenwashing-cartoon
Check out this post on greenwashing here.

 

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.

Some honest reflections – Part one: This country

I’ve been facing internal struggles and spiraling depressive thoughts for a while, and while I’m a nobody and my thoughts and opinions count for little, it’s helpful for me to organise my thoughts and air them. Who knows, there may be others out there who feel the same. Perhaps it’s easiest for me to first pigeonhole myself, then to step outside stereotypes. I am, by all external measures and statistics, a middle-class (upper middle-class? what’s the dividing line?) millennial, born in a first world country where I’m the racial majority and have thus far lived most of my life according to how this country would like it to have been lived. I’ve studied (fairly hard, but I enjoy learning), done well (enough) in exams, gone to first-rate schools, and now have a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cambridge and a master’s degree from Imperial College London. I travel widely, on a mix of some savings (minimal contribution), parents’ money, and grants, hiking, climbing mountains, volunteering for environmental/ecological projects or social/humanitarian objectives, visiting new cities and different cultures. I am a privileged minority, but within this group, I also feel like a minority.

But I’m not here to crow about a moral high ground, or claim to be better than others – in fact that’s a confounding problem that’s been plaguing me. I have been brought up – with influence both from my parents and from my schooling education – to acknowledge my privilege, and therefore the need to give back to society, to better ills, to make the world a better one, to contribute for good. And since graduating from my master’s and coming back to the society that brought me up, I’ve been constantly confused and upset with myself, with my lack of action on my perceived problems with this society, and with my desire to find a place I feel I fit better into. I feel like I should be doing something, but I am not, because I want to do something that makes the most difference (root than symptomatic), and I don’t know what I can do or what I should do, and general inertia in not really wanting to commit too much either. The first step is the hardest, as some say.

There are many things that I feel should not be in Singapore, many things I think can and should be changed (though I don’t know how), many things I see and hear and experience on a daily basis that makes me upset with this country and society. But all I do is gripe about them to my family and friends, grouse and wallow in a pool of self-constructed inability-to-act and dis-empowerment. More on this to come, but it would help me to first expunge my view of all that is not right in this society.

My main gripe is that it’s hard to feel like a human here. In a country that is largely built on capitalistic ideals and whose main selling points are economic success and continued economic growth, the human side of society is increasingly hard to see. Many people here seem to lack a soul. They seem to have forgotten themselves as people, as human, and that others around them are also human. I say this coming back to Singapore after 4.5 years abroad, seeing my country and the people within (because how can I say my people, when I cannot identify with them?) in a different light. Whether it’s due to the changes in the country during that period, or just because I’ve seen how things are in different places and how stifled we are in this country.

Although we constantly talk about society and family units are still perceived as the basic unit of society, many people here are rather individualistic and self-centred. Few think as a collective, as part of a larger society (I don’t just mean this country now, but also as a global citizen), or for the well-being of others. There appears to be a lack of empathy in the general populace towards everyone around there. Of course, there are little bright spots of hope, within the social or environmental (or other?) sectors, and once in a while, we come across heart-warming stories. But it’s still in the minority, not in the norms of our society, when I think it should be.

Examples of what I mean range from the activities we experience on a day-to-day basis – people being rude to others for standing in their way, or taking too long to do an action – to apathy and lack of awareness of others’ plights. Taking driving on Singapore roads to illustrate my point about the lack of collective thinking, we’re known for being rude and inconsiderate. Few people give way, most partake in very aggressive driving such as cutting in to another lane at fairly short notice, causing the driver to have to brake, and not signalling intentions. Instead of seeing the whole road system as a whole, with everyone using the road wisely to make the whole journey better for everyone, people see it as theirs, their right of way. Every empty space represents a possible spot to occupy, and they will do what it takes to overtake a few vehicles and get to their destination faster. Even without causing accidents, it makes other people’s days worse, having to put up with this behaviour.

We’re not exactly a country well-known for empathy. It always infuriates me to see someone asking/ordering the cleaner – usually an elderly who really should not be working, in my opinion – to clear the (hawker) table for them. I cannot understand why these people cannot do it on their own, it’s not as though there was sick all over the table, it’s just a few plates that either need to be placed at the return counter or in the bin. And in a country that’s increasingly xenophobic, we sure show it by our inhumane treatment of foreign workers.

That foreign workers (I mean people here on a work permit, not employment pass) are here to be exploited and treated as less than human is acceptable, if not by our active agreement with the statement, then by our passive shrugging of “what can we do, we need these jobs done”. God forbid we actually pay construction workers (let alone their just pay), because we’ll have to pay more for housing, and how are we to afford that? Never mind that these very people who work day (and sometimes night) in the heat of day and the drenching rains are in debt way over their head just because they want to give their families back home a better life with the S$550/month pay they earn here. It’s true, they know what they’re getting in to coming here as a construction worker – it is hard work. But they came thinking they’d be paid the amount that was stated, and put up with horribly cramped living conditions for that. (Read more on Transient Workers Count Too website about these issues).  And how is it acceptable that you keep your foreign domestic worker’s passport and give her maybe one day off per month? How would you feel if your child went abroad (in search of a better life or for greater financial returns), and was treated the way these domestic workers are treated? Because that lady living in your house, she’s someone’s child too.

And I guess if we can scarcely care about people living in our midst, then it’s harder to even contemplate the impact we have on the rest of the world. We’re not an uneducated population, yet we fail to educate ourselves on how our choices and actions have a wide-ranging impact outside this (very tiny) country. Almost everything we do has a (negative) impact somewhere else in the world. The cheap food we eat, the buffets we want, the clothes we wear, the houses we need. That the prawns you crave were probably the end product of mangrove destruction in Thailand and Vietnam, the fish that’s supposed to be the healthy and good option was probably the blood and sweat of enslaved Cambodians and Burmese who work 20-hour days at sea constantly in frigid conditions, the fashionable wear we can’t wait to get hold of during our constant sales the result of women and children working under slave-like conditions in overcrowded factories in India, and in matters perhaps outside the average Singaporean’s control, the land on which some of our houses and iconic buildings are built the reincarnation of a previously intact ecosystem upon which local communities depended on.

True, there might not be much one can do about all of these things – how can one live, bearing all that in mind? We need shelter too, and food, and a living. But perhaps if we are more aware of the impact we each have through the consumer choices we make, and try and live a bit better, collectively, there will be a difference made.

During the build up to National Day on 9 August, when we celebrated our nation’s independence, I continually questioned – what exactly are we celebrating? Perhaps by many measures and by many people we celebrate our success, as an independent nation, a small one lacking in natural resources that we could plunder for wealth. We have achieved economic success, going by our high national GDP per capita. We have an excellent education system, going by our high literacy rates, constant high rankings in math and sciences at school level, and universities ranked top 15th in the world. We have all that, and yet I look at people around me and feel we’re still lacking something, something more important and fundamental. We’re lacking a sense of humanity, lacking empathy, lacking social and environmental consciousness.

We’re a country that stereotypes, a country that is quick to jump to conclusions based on appearances, a country that prides its exclusivity. So much of our culture is built on a us vs. them rhetoric (think benignly of houses in school, halls in university, and more insidiously of races, economic classes, ‘elite’ schools), creating rivalry to build social cohesion but inadvertently creating individualistic and entitled people. We keep to people who are like us, and shy away from others who are different. And in doing that, fail to understand that we are all the same human beings despite outward differences. But it’s not this case all throughout Singapore, I know. I’m generalising and stereotyping myself, and there are many who interact with diverse peoples, and the human library project shows that we are trying. Yet when we have a National Day Rally – an annual address given by the Prime Minister “to address the nation on its key challenges and announce major policy changes” – and the main takeaways were 1) more/better preschools, 2) eat more brown rice & walk more to reduce diabetes, and 3) become a SMART nation, then I despair.

Then, separate from the grouses I have about this society, the structural things about Singapore that I find hard to adjust back to, but there is little one can do about it. 1) The sky that never darkens. I have difficulties sleeping, I cannot see stars, nor watch meteor showers. The last bits of nature that still feels untouched, uncontrolled by humans, yet can barely be enjoyed by the average person here. 2) The lack of wilderness, whether real or not (is there really anywhere on earth that can be considered wilderness?). To go somewhere with few humans in sight, except those who are also there to enjoy the beauty and peace of being real and human in nature. And 3) which is coupled with my second point, the lack of ability to just go somewhere, spontaneously, freely, without a need to book flights in advance. To be able to drive to a national park/nature reserve/wilderness area and camp a few nights gratis. Because here, land is never free, and freedom is never to be had, but merely perceived.

But this country is not all bad. I get a smile here and there, from bus drivers, cleaners, or other strangers on my path (usually people who don’t appear to be Singaporean, but I don’t want to give in to my stereotypes). At the petrol station once, the cashiers spoke to each other in Malay, though neither of them was of that ethnicity. And that makes me smile, and be glad I’m from here.

The security and the cleaner
Only greet each other
But sometimes I look and hope for a smile
Cos the human touch goes a mile
And I am human too.

Doing fieldwork as a female

How do females deal with their menstrual period while out field? It is a rather underrated and neglected topic, so today, we had a female health in the field session for the (female) students in NTU’s Asian School of the Environment. Though I don’t teach the students, being a Singaporean who’s used a menstrual cup for the last 6 years on field trips, diving trips, and hiking and mountain-climbing expeditions gave me an insight with useful experiences and stories to share.

The issues surrounding doing fieldwork as a female may not be obvious to males (who are also the more common sex in the field), and many females might feel like menstruation is a taboo topic. But getting menstrual periods is something that happens to half of the world’s population and just needs to be dealt with appropriately. Just as many people with the means to have embraced the use of sanitary pads and so go about their everyday life, instead of being confined to their homes while they’re having their period, we shouldn’t feel like we can’t do field work (i.e. go outdoors without access to a toilet with running water) while we’re having our periods, particularly when alternative possibilities exist.

The session started out with Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) and vaginal thrush, and how to prevent them. It seems like the best way would be to not hold your pee (wild pees ftw!), drink lots of water, and maintain a basic level of hygiene. Girls do require a higher minimum level of hygiene than boys do I think, going by my experience thru-hiking in Chile. Using toilet paper (and burying it) and changing fresh underwear is almost a necessity for us, whereas guys don’t seem to get UTIs when they neglect those. Most people are aware of feminine hygiene though, I think.

The more pertinent issue was that of dealing with periods while outdoors. Apart from not having a ready bin for disposal (i.e. you have to bag your used sanitary napkins/tampons and bring it with you till you reach ‘civilisation’), the lack of a toilet bowl/running water can sometimes deter females. Personally, the massive waste of single-use, disposable but un-recyclable sanitary pads/tampons are a major con for using them, and after experiencing the comfort of using a menstrual cup as well, I would never use the disposables again (except for emergencies/supplement to prevent leaks!). I switched from using sanitary pads to using a menstrual cup in 2011 when I planned to hike in Nepal, and have since used it even while camping in Australia, climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, on expeditions in Ecuador/Peru, field trips in the UK, and long-distance hiking in Chile.

Menstrual cups are great especially when you’re out in the field because

  1. You don’t have to deal with disposing bloodied pads/tampons, you can just empty the blood out where you’ve been peeing/pooping (buried if necessary!).
  2. You don’t have to bring a massive supply of disposables.
  3. You can swim/dive.

There are many other pros of using menstrual cups over pads or tampons, like

  1. It’s really comfortable. You don’t end up sitting in your warm pool of blood, as you do with a pad.
  2. You save a lot of money not having to buy pads/tampons. I do use a thin, light-flow pad on my heavy flow days just in case my cup leaks because I haven’t had time to empty it, but otherwise a panty liner will suffice, so I end up using just 2-4 pads over the course of my period, as opposed to at least 10. And a menstrual cup can be used for many, many years – I’m still using the same one.
  3. You have to go to the toilet less often. When I was using a pad, I often worried about leaking, and so kept going to the toilet to check. The menstrual cup just needs emptying about twice a day usually, thrice if it’s a heavy flow, and once when it’s the last day.
  4. They don’t cause Toxic Shock Syndrome, because the cup merely collects the blood instead of absorbing it like tampons. Hence you can keep it in for longer.
  5. You’re not contributing to unnecessary waste. So much plastic and other waste goes to our landfills/incinerators every year. Waste less, don’t use disposables.

There is a higher starting up cost to using menstrual cups, in that they cost between S$30 (for Freedom Cups, a Singapore-based company) to S$50 (for UK-based Mooncup, which is what I’m using and was the only option in Singapore 6 years ago). It also took me about two periods to get familiar and comfortable with putting the cup in and taking it out.

However, maintaining hygiene while using the Mooncup is not difficult, I wash it out with water and put it back in (using my water bottle if a tap is not available). I have even accidentally dropped it in the toilet bowl while cleaning it out, and just rinsed it and popped it back in with no further issue (I am not advising cleaning your menstrual cup with toilet bowl water though, especially after you’ve peed in it…).

Everyone would have their own way of dealing with periods while outdoors, but to me, menstrual cups are a genius invention that should be embraced. It would be a huge shame if menstruation was a deterrent to more girls doing field work or going outdoors, though having (really bad) menstrual cramps would be a completely different issue.

We may be physically weaker (for most of the population) and have a slightly greater need of personal hygiene than males, but we shouldn’t fear it to be an impediment when doing fieldwork, nor allow it to be an excuse for not having more females on an expedition, because there is a need and value for women to be in the field at times, as Haifaa Abdulhalim accounts as when working as IUCN’s World Heritage Coordinator in the Arab region.

[Update: 10 May 2017] There are several other slightly more (than just trying to get let the blood out in a less disruptive fashion) drastic options for controlling your period, e.g. birth control/contraceptive pills, and intrauterine device (IUD). They both have the main/side effect of preventing pregnancy, so depending on your personal beliefs, you may prefer to use/avoid them. I’m not as familiar with these options so did not mention them as methods for controlling period bleeds, but from comments provided, they are sometimes a better option than menstrual cups.