Our current dystopian reality

Glitzy shop window displaying 3-digits priced fashion and gifts, an inadequately-dressed young woman curled on cardboard in front of it, her sole bag of possessions as a pillow.

The momentary excitement on a child’s face, as it rips open packaging to reveal a £35-priced Disney doll, produced by weary hands paid £0.01 for the work.

A spread of meats, cheeses, sides, wines, desserts, ordered from a catalogue to be delivered to the address, the prime dish fattened by maize grown by a family-verging-on-hunger halfway around the world, maize which replaced their previously diverse polycultures that kept them full and healthy.

Barbed wire fences and walls, separating the haves and have-nots, separating dreams and despair, separating children from caretakers.

Pictures of the Year
Image taken by Kim Kyung Hoon from Reuters. See: http://time.com/5464560/caravan-mexico-border-iconic-photo/

Are we not living in a dystopia, right this very moment? Those who can, who are on the social and economic ladder, able to afford not just basic necessities, but all the accompanying extravagances. Those who cannot, hidden out of sight, invisible even on the news, suffering, scraping by, made to fight between themselves over scraps or words.

We, those that have some, think it is a time to come, a time yet come, a time that might never come. But whether we like it or not, it is here. We live in a world of absurd lived realities, inequalities stretched out on the spectrum to unprecedented dimensions, knowing that each is a direct result of the other. Because in a world that hails the ability to shift costs onto other, lesser, beings, including non-human nature, this is the inevitable outcome. Dystopian fictions written by authors in centuries past have finally come to pass.

Better yet, knowing what we now know, of the consequences of past actions, of the destruction wrought by premeditated extraction, of the revenge of the living world for our trespasses – we are still failing to act. Little effect though it would probably have anyway had it passed, the failure of all nations on this earth to agree that we, global humanity, need to do something different to how we, minority of the world population, have been operating particularly in the last few decades, means that in all likelihood, our current dystopian reality will just get worse.

As the climate gets more unpredictable, with more frequent, more severe, more unstable weather, the environmental stresses are exacerbated, social resilience further eroded. Failure to grow crops, obtain drinking water, secure a shelter, earn a living will make ‘status quo’, ‘Business As Usual’ impossible. And so, things will change, and current predictions based on linear projections will not hold true. Which path would we go down?

Some, the more environmentally-inclined, the more aware and well-read, the ones who believe in the superiority and ability of (wo)mankind to pull through adversities, will imagine a world like the same, but cleaner and greener. Powered by clean, renewable energy. A sea of solar panels over deserts, a field of wind turbines over seas. “The science and technology is available, we are just lacking political will,” they say. Everyone will be wearing green clothes, made of bamboo, hemp, or other renewable, sustainable products. Everyone will be bringing their reusable cups for certified-sustainable-and-fair-trade coffee. Everyone will be consuming sustainable food, more vegetables, locally/organically grown, lab-grown meat and food made from solar-powered, hydrogen-eating bacteria, cricket burgers with chips. Food will be grown in buildings, buildings will be covered in greenery, it will be a sustainable, smart world we live in.

Others, the more critical and politically-socially-aware, the more radical and extreme, the ones who understand the structural, underlying causes of all these symptoms that are manifesting now, will imagine a world vastly different, almost unthinkable. Not just ‘greener’, but also equitable. Renewable energy, distributed to peoples, powering considerably reduced demand for energy. Simplicity, sufficiency, conviviality underpinning every consumption choice, made easier by changes to current institutions. No need to make money for the sake of making money. No need to save money for the sake of having more money. Radical democracy, municipal autonomy, nutritious food sufficiency through regional trading, closer consumer-producer relations. A systemic transformation of our current political and economic system resulting in a world that is more equitable, more resilient to the impending destructions of climate breakdown while reducing the actual inputs contributing to climate breakdown.

Or, perhaps more realistically, us barrelling down the path to 3, 4 or more ˚C of planet warming, along with more protectionism and far-right sentiments, increasing dehumanisation of other peoples. Ending with a world like ruled by countries like Panem, in Hunger Games, or a world like that in Mortal Engines or more realistically, like Children of Men (the film) with its tightened borders and harsh treatment of refugees, less global infertility (as of now).

We are living in a dystopia, whether we know it or not, where some have at the expense of the many. Those who have are still a considerable number, including you and me, but will slowly dwindle, if we continue down our current path, eventually resulting in stark, drastic inequalities and a ravaged, unliveable environment. If we take reformist actions, pursuing green growth and smart cities, we might put that ending off a few years, maybe decades, while deluding ourselves and perpetuating current dystopian realities. If we dare imagine a different world and take radical action against current hegemonic powers in political, economic, social institutions, then perhaps, a different outcome for humanity could be reached.

For a comprehensive, very readable understanding of climate change, its past, present and future, check out Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik’s The Memory We Could Be.

For an understanding of what radical change could look like, check out the Degrowth movement.

If you’ve not heard of the Extinction Rebellion, it’s worth checking out too.

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.


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.