In reflecting upon the entire course (especially today’s guest lecture), what do you think you’ve really learnt about environmental sustainability?
Politics, definitely politics. The final guest lecturer, more than any of the other guest lectures, had an explicit agenda and wanted to persuade us to follow him/her. Perhaps I had not been very aware of this in a few of the previous guest lectures, such as the one on (Not) Eating Animals where the guest lecturer presenting both sides of the argument. Moreover, the speakers’ were less radical or controversial; in contrast, the final speaker from the Vegetarian Society (Singapore) (VSS) ostensibly wanted us to eat less meat (or not at all). Plus, he talked about politics. By politics, I mean the small ‘p’ politics of grassroots activism and challenging stereotypes and norms in society itself (to make it ‘better’). As the representative of an NGO, the speaker gave an overview to how his organization reaches out to Singaporeans and works with schools to push its agenda. Similarly, while other speakers were not involved in activism, they all framed their problems or topics in a certain way so as to get us to agree with them. Sometimes, it worked; other times, it fell through without impact.
If environmental sustainability is a political maneuver, then promoting it as a paradigm requires skilful framing, or as the advertising agencies call it, packaging. Of paramount importance is therefore the appeal and relevance to the audience. To persuade us not to eat meat, the last speaker laid out all the negative health impact of meat eating – cancer, heart disease – with graphic images thrown in for emphasis, while extolling the virtues of a non-meat diet. Perhaps his tactic would have worked better to a slightly older audience, for youths like us are not known for our concern over health issues. Still, health would be of at least some relevance to anybody; if he had played the ethics card (by showing graphic images of industrial meat farming) or climate change card (he did gloss over some statistics on greenhouse gases), some of us might have been completely unconvinced or uninterested. For environmental sustainability, I think the three-pronged approach of environment, society and economy works as an ideal over-arching framework, where one or two aspects can be emphasized more to gain the desired sustainability outcome. For example, recycling and the cutting down of waste can be framed as an economic (and environmental) issue for consumers and companies; environmental NGOs can angle their campaigns towards social equity so as to garner support from less ‘green’ people.
Finally, because environmental sustainability permeates all facets of society, achieving it requires the help and effort of as many relevant stakeholders as possible, even the ‘enemies’. VSS targets the ‘middle’ segment of society, particularly the educational institutions because it finds them the most receptive and able to spread the word. Besides, as schools are keener on having healthy food than hawker centres, VSS is able to align its interests with school administrations, and convince school canteen vendors to reduce the amount of fried food served. The key is creating leverage with other stakeholders, and working out a way to best serve each others’ interests. However, environmental sustainability issues that cut across different scales would require working with people who are not as receptive. My example of Shell in entry 9 argues that despite Shell’s perhaps polluting industries and drilling in pristine landscapes, it can still play an important role in sustainable development. One of the main things I’ve learned is that when it comes to something as idealistic as environmental sustainability, you cannot really choose who to work with: the issues and people/organizations/states are already there. The best way then to manage conflict and effect change is not to sow distrust but build partnerships. I am reminded of Gawad Kalinga, a developmental NGO in the Philippines that has had quite a success building communities and empowering lives. Their secret? Working with anybody who wants to work with them – ‘corrupt’ officials, TNCs, religious organizations and schools. It’s not hypocrisy; it’s bringing people for a common cause.