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.

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.

Food as a common good

Always a hot and popular topic, we all consume food yet give it so little thought at the same time. What kind of food do you most commonly consume, where do you get it from, how was it procured, what were the lives of the animals/vegetables/people who grew your food like?

I attended a Green Drinks session on mapping the food sharing landscape by Monika Rut on 29 June 2017, a researcher based at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland who is working on a project about food sharing in cities (SHARECITY), with Singapore as her case study. The project is still in its preliminary research stages, and I felt the session served mainly as a platform for talking about food-related issues. As the organiser remarked, food is a great way to bring people together, not just because everyone eats and most Singaporeans consider eating to be their past time, but because you get the whole gamut of people interested in growing food (urban farms), making food (chefs), and sharing food/cutting food waste (sustainability). Personally, food is an easy entrance for me to talk about sustainability (and link to environmental conservation) to the average individual, who may not otherwise care about wildlife, or plastic in the oceans, or other natural resource exploitation. When I was doing my master’s at Imperial College London last year, we had to organise a symposium as part of our course requirements, and we chose the topic of sustainable food for the same reason.

A comment made by one of the audience, a chef who has had many years experience working in hotels, was that food should be perceived as a common good. And that was a novel thought to me, to frame food as a common good. Classic examples of common good would be freshwater and air, at least according to Wikipedia (my economics is slightly rusty). In our society, surrounded by commercialisation and capitalism, it is easy to see how common goods can be exploited by private firms and become non-sustainable — and we as consumers and citizens fail to consider the links between our actions and the inevitable end result. Why do so many Singaporeans waste food (average of 179 kg per person in 2014), or consume food unsustainably?

Part of the problem is a result of the culture we’re surrounded by. For all that we’re a ‘foodie nation’, eating out is a huge part of it. Compared to other nations well-known for their relationship with their food like Italy and Japan, where their people take pride in their knowledge of producing and cooking their food, we just want to know which restaurant/hawker stall sells the best *. While paying for food makes people realise the value/cost of producing it, on the flip side it also results in a sense of entitlement that they have the right to waste it. When that really shouldn’t be the case.

Constantly buying food also results in a disengagement with how the food was produced, or where it was procured from. I never thought about how fortunate I am, or how different it is to the way most others in Singapore might live. We’ve always had home-cooked meals, if not lunch then at the very least dinner. Especially since my younger brother started his baking and culinary science diploma, and my mom became semi-retired, we’ve increasingly prepared more (and more elaborate) meals at home, rather than eating out. Just today, three out of the five people living in my household spent hours/the whole day preparing food: baking bread, preparing tarts/pies, making traditional tapioca kuehs, and cooking shakshuka for lunch. What is perhaps usually a once/twice a year affair for most families is an almost daily occurrence for us.

How can we get more Singaporeans to care more about the food they’re consuming, the way they’re obtained and the sustainability of them? Ground-up movements like Love Food Cut Waste are a great start, but Singapore being Singapore, where government public education campaigns have proved time and again to be fairly effective, I am inclined to think that food waste numbers will only go down when our government agencies are fully on board.

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.