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.

 

Speaking up for Palestine as Christians

I don’t usually write about political current affairs or religion, the former because I don’t feel that informed or strongly about issues to write about them, the latter because I think it’s a personal belief issue (and declaring one’s religious beliefs tend to make people judge with hostility unnecessarily). But the more I read about certain issues, the less able I am to just stay silent, when there are such blatant injustices involved. I thought quite hard about the title, thought of more pompous sounding ones like Freedom and Oppression, or Oppression in the Holy Land, etc. But it seems easier and less pretentious to just cut to the chase.

Today (2 Nov) marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration¹, made by the British government in 1917 during World War I in support of the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. In the declaration, the British also added the caveat that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Looking at what’s happened to Palestine since then however, and how Palestinians have been/are treated, it’s fair to say that all notions of respecting the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities have gone out of the window, if they even ever existed. [And in some cases, even Jews suffer discrimination, if they’re not Ashkenazi who are from European countries].  The Balfour Declaration is problematic in many ways, and the oppression of Palestians by Israelis in their homeland is outrageous, but my problem with this whole issue is the seeming lack of awareness of this issue among Christians, and worse, justifications for the Israelis by Christian Zionists.

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Adverts for the #MakeItRight campaign banned by Transport for London

As a Christian, to be unaware of what’s going on in the land from which our religion originates is a failure of education. Growing up Catholic, I’ve attended Sunday masses every week for almost the entirety of my 25 years. And every week, without fail, there would be some mention of the land of Israel. So I live my life thinking Israel is the land of milk and honey, that some pretty horrific things went on there in the past, but it’s all history now. And that the Israelis have always lived in Israel. It’s only been in the last year or so, that I became more aware of the realities of life in what’s now commonly accepted as Israel. Of course, it didn’t help that Israel and Singapore have always had good relations, and it’s a well-known fact that our Armed Forces were trained by the Israelis back in our early days of Independence. I never thought too much of Israel beyond that, not knowing anything about the Israeli occupation. On hindsight, it was just foolish of me to assume that Singapore would not establish good relations with Israel just because they were committing morally reprehensible acts. Singapore is after all, just a small vulnerable country that strives for good diplomatic relations with all countries (especially powerful ones).

Being now more aware of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, coming across Christian Zionists (Christians who believe that Jews returning to the Holy Land and establishing the state of Israel is in accordance with the fulfillment of bible prophecy) who justify what the Israelis are doing is an affront to my religious senses. What the Israelis are doing (restricting movement of people, of vital goods and services, grabbing land from the natives, assaulting even children etc. – go forth and Google and be horrified) is an affront to anyone’s sensibilities, whether religious or not. To use religious justification (which in my opinion is a weak argument because it’s usually more about gaining power than anything that is morally right) just insults everyone who is religious. If one needs a bible (or torah) phrase to justify taking land away from people who’ve always lived there, then how about “You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien, for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)

What was done 100 years ago, is done. The damage caused in Palestine echos those from other colonised countries, but on a much worse scale. I don’t claim to have a solution to the problem, or to know much about the back story behind what’s been done, but condoning Israel’s actions (and supporting companies that are complicit in the occupation) is unacceptable. Palestinians are calling for recognition of their rights, their right to live on their land as their forefathers have lived for centuries, their right to move around freely on their land, their right to be human, something that all of us, any of us should be able to identify with and support. And the UK, as the main perpetrators, should apologise.


1 Palestinians are calling for the British government to apologise for the Balfour Declaration, and are marking the centenary with a campaign around the UK to #MakeItRight. On Twitter though, the hashtag has been interestingly hijacked.