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.


Thirteen: Environmental Awareness in the City

It wasn’t my first time hearing Karen Teo from NParks speak; a few years back, fresh out of junior college and faced with more than half a year to kill, I had signed up as a volunteer at NParks’ Central Nature Reserve wanting to try my hand out at an environmental organization. At the volunteers’ orientation, Karen was there, giving a similar speech on Singapore’s biodiversity and challenges, and I remembered being wowed, just like the class was during the lecture.

The truth is, most Singaporeans do not know about, as Karen puts it “the other Singaporeans”: those who can fly, glide or live under water. I admit too that I never really knew what wonders this tiny island held until after junior college when I visited some of the amazing shores like Pulau Semakau with Team Seagrass. And even now that I know, I hardly ever have the urge to go wandering in the forest that is only a kilometer away. The ever-present sight of other people is one problem, but more significantly, nature is not something that I have a deep connection to.

Growing up in an already urbanized Singapore, my awareness of the environment was less acute than my awareness of the built structures or of people. I used to frequent Little Guilin, the granite quarry turned nature park at Bukit Gombak, but even then it was small, and the roars of vehicles and people were always there. Recalling the Pigeon Paradox that I mentioned in entry 10, positive childhood experiences with the natural environment and species (whether in urban or rural areas) are often cited as reasons for an individual’s high environmental awareness later in life. When I asked some older nature volunteers (usually guides) why they were passionate enough to give up their time and often beauty sleep on weekend mornings, they simply replied that they wanted to be ‘out there’ and reconnect with the more ‘natural’ Singapore of the past. In contrast, my generation views nature as (and I agree with Kong et al) less relevant to our lives and inferior to development priorities, due to our limited interactions with a more (state-)managed form of nature. In fact, Ria wrote an article about some Gen Y (21-34 years old) voters’ priorities as surveyed by The Straits Times: the environment languished at the bottom with only 0.75% of the people picking it as the issue of most concern.

While the survey merely ranks the issues of most concern and does not reveal how concerned younger Singaporeans like me are about environmental issues, for environmental sustainability to be accepted and incorporated in cities, more opportunities for positive human-nature interactions need to be available. Singapore’s current approach to nature – ‘City in a Garden’ – needs to be relaxed and less managed to allow our ‘other Singaporeans’ to creep back in. Of course, being the quintessential development state, relinquishing some control will be a task the government finds difficult. But there are signs of more environmental awareness at the top, buoyed by the high of the Singapore Index on Cities’ Biodiversity (CBI). For a country like Singapore who cares about international rankings and labels, it cannot afford to be chastised as cutting down on its natural environment. So this, together with the brave environmental organizations and individuals on the ground, make a good start bringing environmental awareness back into the city. The question is, will you join in? At least for me, the answer is yes.


Twelve: Sustainable Futures

If I had to choose, I would pick this lecture as my favourite. Why? Because it sheds light on what sustainable development or environment sustainability really should be: socially equitable, economically viable and environmentally responsible. It follows nicely from last week’s discussion on inequality, and also resolves some of the problems I had defining sustainable development in entry 5. With this three-pronged approach to sustainable development, there can finally be less debate about the fuzzy and nebulous concept, and hopefully some real action beyond ‘greenwashing’.

Inevitably, wanting environmental sustainability to be at the same time equitable, ‘green’ and profitable is ambitious (and very idealistic). Scott Campell acknowledges the various conflicts that can occur in the context of urban planning (see picture), such as the Resource Conflict (dilemma whether to develop land for profit or conserve it for environmental purposes). As acknowledged by both Prof Neo and the guest lecturer, achieving all 3 aspects of environmental sustainability would be very, very challenging.


One of the questions that popped into my mind was how this notion of environmental sustainability matches up to the 4 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) scenarios of Global Orchestration, TechnoGarden, Order from Strength and Adapting Mosaic. These scenarios were plausible futures of human-environment mapped out in the MEA report, based on their level of reactivity to ecosystem problems and the scale of involvement (local to global).  While the report gave ratings to these scenarios based on their potential impact on various aspects of human development and environmental health, it did not single out any scenario as the best. Thus, I thought comparing it with the new-and-improved environmental sustainability can help sort things out.

Taken from MEA Scenarios

First, Order from Strength is characterized by a fragmented world with countries acting more in their best interests than together, as well as a reactive approach to ecosystem problems: reacting to them after they have occurred. This approach is the most similar to our current situation; and is especially evident during international negotiations over climate change and other environmental issues, where countries jostle with one another for power and try not to ‘lose’ out by making bigger pledges. This also reminds me of the Tragedy of the Commons, as the lack of trust and difficulty enforcing norms across the board leads to countries settling for personal interests despite knowledge in the severity of non-action (for climate change). In this case, this scenario is neither equitable (in the global and local scales) nor ‘green’; it is economically viable, at least in the short term.

TechnoGarden, the complete opposite of Order from Strength, represents a connected world using technology to proactively manage and prevent ecosystem problems.  While this may seem like some science fiction fantasy, we can see glimpses of ‘controlled’ nature in dams, or in ecological modernization, where technological ‘fixes’ and innovations are used to improve (resource) efficiency and reduce environmental impact. The environmental and economic elements are thus relatively well addressed. Yet this is also what our guest lecturer calls bourgeois environmentalism, where equity is ignored.

Our best bet for environmental sustainability lies in between Global Orchestration and Adaptive Mosaic. The former involves countries working together to react to environmental problems and address inequality by investing in public goods; the latter, a bottom-up, community-based, management of ecosystems focused on community empowerment. While Adaptive Mosaic lacks economic viability, merging it with Global Orchestration can help link community-level enterprises with the national or regional markets.  An example would be REDD+, which is a global carbon offset scheme that aims to transfer financial value from developed countries or companies to the communities who depend on forests, so as to encourage the sustainable management of forests. In theory, it sounds like the perfect model of environmental sustainability; but we have to wait to see if power and money can be effectively devolved to the community.


Eleven: Inequality, the missing link

This tutorial on ‘(In)equity, (in)equality and (in)justice, helped put the human dimension of environmental sustainability into the picture. So far, throughout our lectures and tutorials, we have mostly looked about the human impact on the environment. While this should be the case (since we are talking about the environment) one of the side effects is that we may not be able to relate to the environmental concerns that are either too far away (like deforestation in the Amazon), not in the immediate future (sea level rise and climate change) or simply not interesting or easy to ignore (loss of biodiversity). As I mentioned in the previous entry about the Pigeon Paradox, city dwellers will not bother saving even charismatic megafauna like pandas or tigers if these animals or their habitats mean nothing to them. Unfortunately, many of the global NGOs concerned with environmental sustainability have framed their issues around “protecting the environment” (Greenpeace) or “stop[ping] the degradation of our planet's natural environment” (WWF). Besides the paradoxical notion of humans being both the protector and (implicit) destroyer of the environment, little is mentioned about human-environment dependence and therefore the impact on human communities. While it may seem counter-productive to focus on humans when WWF or Greenpeace are supposed to be environmental NGOs, I think this will help people relate better to environmental issues and be more aware of their actions. Besides, environmental injustice is often social injustice too.

The 2010 UN Human Development Report analyzed global issues surrounding empowerment, equity and sustainability, particular in chapter 4 “Good things don’t always come together”. While many of the aspects such as democracy, gender inequality and income inequality are not ostensibly linked to environmental concerns, the section on indigenous people (75) leapt out at me. The injustice they face was a combination of unequal land rights, social and political marginalization, and poverty: in short, theirs was definitely an environmental injustice. Closer yet in urban societies, environmental injustice takes the form of polluting industries contaminating the (human and natural) environments of communities or the lack of access to (good quality) food. When we think of poverty or inequality, the first image that often comes to mind are perhaps the squatter settlements in ‘Third World’ countries. However, poor living environments are as much a concern in ‘First World’ countries: in Chicago, 530000 Chicagoans live in ‘food deserts,’ without access to grocery stores. While some may argue that these environmental injustices are not strictly about ‘nature’ and should therefore not be under the purview of ‘strict’ environmental organizations, I believe that the human and natural environment should be interlinked. How does one draw the line? Perhaps if nature is strictly ‘non-human,’ then environmental organizations can limit their focus to remote pockets of forests, or the depths of the oceans; yet the ‘human’ dimension always leaks into ‘nature.’ When Bill McKibben wrote his book The End of Nature  he lamented the end of what he called an independent nature away from human influence. Yes, a nature without human intervention does not exist, but neither can any human society exist without nature!


 As such, it is futile to talk about environmental sustainability as it is separate from social equity, or vice versa. It occurs to me that disciplines like Geography are best positioned to bring the two spheres together. Especially within the academic world, the split between the sciences (study of nature) and the arts/humanities (study of society) is most evident. Conflicts arise from misappropriation and fundamental differences in philosophies; even within Geography, taking modules on gender and social geography seem to me a world apart from those on geomorphology or atmosphere. Still, bridging fields like environmental Geography and greater interdisciplinary focus represent a possibility for reconciling nature and society. Beyond the slow-changing world of academia, I think those at the forefront, the environmental NGOs, can step up to address the gap that they have left, beginning by acknowledging that injustice on the planet is injustice to the people too. 


Ten: Greening Universities

Before the lecture, I never knew that NUS had an Environmental Policy. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that no student from NUS (with the notable exception of those from GE3239 and SAVE) knows about it. Of course, just as one does not require formal laws to know how to behave in public spaces, not knowing the NUS Environmental Policy does not mean that NUS students are not involved in “exemplary environmental activities to minimize waste, prevent pollution and use resources effectively”. However, based on my observations on campus, as well as chats with members of SAVE, I feel NUS students are generally quite environmentally apathetic. Compared with other countries where students sort and recycle their own trash (my group member from USA tells us that he would feel weird if he were to throw a plastic bottle into a dustbin instead of a recycling bin), the recycle bins at NUS are rarely used or, as one SAVE member puts it, “contaminated” by other non-recyclables.

Evidently, being environmentally-aware is not in our nature. Why is that so? Especially for Singaporeans and other city-dwellers, nature or the environment does not seem relevant to our lives. (After all, isn’t the city supposed to be the antithesis of nature?) In the university, other than modules like Environmental Sustainability or those with an ‘environment’ or ‘nature’ tag, sustainable development hardly gets discussed in the disciplines. Moreover, the way our lessons are being conducted, even for nature-related modules in the stale, freezing air of lecture theatres and classrooms, are far away from the ‘real’ world. One of the criticisms of education is that teaching theories and concepts of the discipline (whether the sciences, humanities or business) merely in a classroom setting and without accompanying practical experience is of little use. Sure, we could carry out intelligent-sounding discussions on the best way to reduce our ecological footprints, but how many of us would follow-up on this after class? Last semester, my professor for the module Biodiversity and Conservation Biology conducted two tutorials at a grassy patch at Lover’s Park, besides the Central Library. Since we were learning about the value and existence of urban nature, he wanted us to try learning in situ. Admittedly, we were very distracted by the human and non-human noises around us, but this was perhaps because we were so used to having lessons in the quiet indoors. Had all our lessons been conducted like this, would we have felt the same?

The point that I want to make is that there is a disconnect between what we are learning and what is happening out there or in our lives. As Mr Loo presented, it is not enough to have separate environmental modules; rather, they should be integrated within and among disciplines, as well as incorporate student participation in projects in school and beyond. For example, architecture students can design ‘green’ building improvements; business students can propose sustainability solutions to companies. The aim is to make sustainable development something that is relevant to our lives, if not already so. Another way to encourage students to incorporate sustainability in their lives is to have green campuses – urban nature areas where students can spend time in, instead of libraries or benches. As the authors of the Pigeon Paradox suggest, “people are more likely to conserve nature when they have direct experiences in the natural world”. While this is more applicable during formative years of childhood, it is never too late for one to develop an awareness of, and care for the natural environment. Looking ahead though, an environmental education cannot begin only in university, but in the campuses of the primary and secondary schools, perhaps even kindergarten.


Nine: The Blame Game

Ten minutes into the presentation by Shell’s representative (for social investment? I forgot her name) and I think we all knew that it would be nothing radical. The choice of guest speaker for this lecture was quite ironic, given that this week’s topic “Extracting from the Earth” seemed to be contrary to the notion of environmental sustainability itself. To give an analogy, it was like inviting a meat-lover to give a speech on vegetarianism. How could Shell, which depends on fossil fuels and therefore the continued proliferation of greenhouse gases for profit, be in any way ‘environmentally-friendly’?

The speaker certainly did not do much to change this seeming paradox: she touched on issues regarding energy efficiency and Shell’s dedication to protecting the environment, but these all seemed superficial and perhaps a tad ‘greenwashed’. When in Q&A I asked if Shell was looking to alternative energy sources, and others asked about the environmental controversies surrounding Shell in Singapore, she was quite defensive and did not, in our opinion, give satisfactory answers.

Yet, what exactly were we expecting? Were we so idealistic to think that a Transnational Corporation (TNC) like Shell would give up its profit-generating fossil fuels just because of growing concern about climate change? More importantly, can a company like Shell, which technically depends on ‘polluting’ to profit, ever be (environmentally) sustainable? After reflecting upon these questions, I came to the realization that we (the public) should not always think of TNCs as the ‘bad guys’ whose existence is inherently ‘bad’ or unsustainable. It is somehow fashionable, when dealing with problems in society, to blame the dominant group or discourse. This is especially prevalent, I feel, in the social sciences (Geography included):  we blame patriarchy for the ‘glass ceiling’ and violence towards women; ‘rich’ tourists and their countries for neo-colonialization and imperialism in host countries; heteronormative governments for the suppression of alternative sexualities; TNCs for polluting the environment – the list is never-ending. This is not to say that these powerful groups are not at fault; my point is, instead of always criticizing and trying to fight them as the enemy, can we not find a middle-ground to work from?

Perhaps I am naïve, but I do think that cooperation is possible in many of the problems we find today. Moreover, strictly speaking, we are as much to blame as Shell for ‘polluting’ the environment. Are we not also profligate users of fossil fuels in our daily transportation needs, meals and air-conditioned comforts? Does this mean that we can never lead environmentally-responsible lifestyles, because whatever we do generates waste/carbon dioxide and therefore harms the environment? Taking this line of thought leads nowhere, only to the notion that humans are fundamentally destroyers of nature, and only with our annihilation can the planet truly flourish. As Peter Vitousek says, “every organism modifies its environment” , the question is therefore not whether Shell (or us) should continue to use fossil fuels, but rather how it can build a better relationship with the environment. Shell’s focus on energy efficiency and better environmental impact assessment should be supported instead of derided as insufficient. At the same time, stakeholders and consumers like us can push for greater change, in a positive manner. Linking with Prof Neo’s talk on the impact of blood diamonds in African communities, a boycott of De Beers (the lead TNC in the diamond industry) will not do any good in the long run, and may only hurt the locals who depend on diamond mining for a living. After all, people work better on trust than distrust. Positive examples, such as that of Ray Anderson, who led the carpet industry transformation from one that pollutes to a more socially and environmentally responsible and (surprise!) a more profitable company can also help change the mindset that environmental sustainability always comes at the expense of profit. For companies like Shell with a wide customer base and an eye for profit, such an approach would be more effective than just pure blaming.


Eight: Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons

I think when Garrett Hardin wrote his Tragedy of the Commons in 1968, he never expected that it would still as or more relevant today as it was then. Through my discussions with my group and the students at Australia National University, I realized that we had similar experiences in our lives regarding the abuse or misuse of shared resources or property. The ANU students talked a lot about living in halls or student residences, where it was not uncommon to find common areas like toilets or dining areas in a mess. Similar to Hardin’s thesis, the bigger the community and more accessible the resources were, the higher the tendency of abuse. Acting alone, personal interests and economic rationality rather than social responsibility tended to dominate; after all, as Hardin puts, while everyone knows that greater collective benefit is achieved if nobody ‘cheats’ or abuses the resources, the uncertainty of this and inability to police thus make it more ‘rational’ to act selfishly.

Yet, in the midst of explaining the ‘tragedy,’ Hardin alluded to the possible opportunities for arresting it. While his suggestions of privatizing the ‘commons’ is valid, I do not think it is feasible, especially for common resources like air or water. Moreover, the privatization of resources hands the power over to a dominant group, excluding and marginalizing those who cannot afford to pay, or whose rights are simply not taken into account. One example would be the creation of Protected Areas in biodiversity rich areas, whether as national parks or game reserves.  This began in 20th century Africa where “conservationists sought to exclude ‘aliens’ in the name of ecological purity” (Adams, 2003, 21), forgetting that the ‘wilderness’ was very much populated by indigenous people who were dependant on it. While this may achieve the aim of preventing human use of the forests, it also infringes on the fundamental right of the people to live there.

A related problem to privatization of common property is that excluding people – through price, laws or force – tends to create greater alienation (and perhaps retaliation) amongst the excluded. Poaching is prevalent in all nature parks and protected areas, even in our very own Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. While this can be attributed to economic necessity or plain ignorance, it is a sign that mere privatization or ‘fencing off’ of common resources is not quite the answer. Rather, I would (and so would my discussion group members) prefer a more community-based management of common resources. Besides our reading (Feeny, 1990), the most famous advocate for ‘common-pool resources’ is probably Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel Laureate for Economics. Based on her research on human-ecosystems interaction and management, she suggests that unlike privatization (or nationalization) which centralizes control in a powerful and often distant party, common resources are better management in collaboration with the direct stakeholders, the locals. This is because locals, being at the scale of the resource itself, are bound to have a significant impact on it. Therefore, in biodiversity conservation and development (usually tourism), a multi-stakeholder approach has been utilized and advocated by NGOs and practitioners. There are many names such as Community-Based Conservation Projects and Community-Based Tourism to characterize this approach, but the key idea is that locals should be in the center of any effort to govern common resources. In the example of Bunaken National Park, local patrols have been effective in reducing the incidence of destructive cyanide fishing practices amongst fellow villagers, with former offenders even joining the ranks. Because the locals themselves understand and are involve in the management of their shared resources, it becomes more difficult for ‘cheaters,’ especially those within the community, to act solely for their own interests.

Beyond the sphere of ecosystem management, I believe that communal management of resources can be applicable in places more relevant to us students, such as in residences or student rooms. When it comes to resources where there is no clear community, as in wider environmental sustainability issues on water or energy conservation, I think the stakeholder involvement of common-pool resources can also be utilized: public education is one aspect, which I think the Public Utilities Board (in charge of water issues in Singapore) has done relatively well; yet, letting the community be a bigger part of the decision-making process is what will pique a greater sense of awareness and ownership in Singaporeans. For example, decisions on how and whether to restore local rivers (e.g. ABC Waters) should involve consultations with and inputs from residents. After all, these are our rivers too, and we can only love and care for them if we feel they belong to us. Even as such decentralized methods are slower and less efficient than mere privatization/nationalization, I believe that they are, in the long run, better. 

Adams, W.M. (2003). “Nature and the colonial mind.” In W.M.Adams and M. Mulligan (eds.) Decolonizing Nature: Strategies for conservation in a post-colonial world (pp. 16-44). London: Earthscan.

Feeny, David. (1990). “Tragedy of the Commons: twenty-two years later.” In Conca, Ken., Alberty, Michael and Dabelko, Geoffrey D. (Eds.) Green Planet Blues: Environment Politics from Stockholm to Rio (pp. 53-62). New York: Plenium Press.

Seven: (Not) Eating Animals

Why are you not vegetarian? Or, put differently, why do you eat meat? These seemingly simple questions were to my surprise, something that I had never really thought of, until today.


I am a meat reducer. That was a decision I made towards the end of last year, spurred on by two main reasons but ‘pushed’ by one. In Nature and Society, a module I took last semester, we watched Earthlings  during one of the lectures. Without giving away any spoilers, let me just say the movie featured graphic images of the cruelty of the many industries that dealt with or used animals, one of which was the meat industry. Like many of those present, I was really disturbed and distressed by what I saw on screen that I did not or dared not to see in reality. I remember telling my friend after class that I was never going to look at a plate of chicken in the same light again.


So, cutting the long story short, I almost always eat vegetarian when ordering my own food. This has availed me to queries of ‘are you vegetarian?’ which I have grudgingly accepted as common. Yet, today I realize that all these questions carry a hidden assumption – that it is natural or normal to eat meat. Indeed, nobody questions the person with a chicken wing: so, you are an omnivore? That is taken as granted; eating meat is assumed as the standard, from which all other alternatives are measured and defined by their ‘special dietary restrictions.’


Without going into detail about the omnipresence of the meat industry and thus the ‘naturalness’ of meat eating, the mere ‘naturalness’ or pervasiveness of an action or an ideology does not make it automatically better than all alternatives. Sure, sometimes popularity does match value, but it is not a guarantee. What is needed is therefore an evaluation and questioning of our own assumptions. In the lecture, when one student brought up cultural norms as one reason to eat meat, our guest lecturer responded that that argument was a baseless once. Cultures are never static, and just because it is in one’s culture to eat meat, it does not mean that it is therefore right or better to do so. This notion of challenging our assumptions can be extended to all my previous portfolio entries. For example, for sustainable development, the widespread ‘norm’ is that of weaker sustainable development, or worse, just economic development as usual. As much as governments may want to persuade us that the rate of continued economic growth in the same manner as before ‘works’ and is therefore the way to go, we should challenge that line of thought against perhaps new parameters and indicators of success and development. Beyond the environment, coming back to personal decisions on what we eat, buy, or do, I think we can all benefit from asking ourselves from time to time, whether what we do is the best way to do it.


Maybe the next time somebody asks me if I am vegetarian I should respond with why, are you not one?


Six: Globalization of Food

I was really quite blown away by the immensity and intensity of the food networks in our world, and even more so after Prof Harvey Neo said the video was made in 1998. “Food super highways,” as they are called, crisscross international borders with an ease brought about by the technological and transportation advances of this globalized era.  This reminds me of my very first lecture on globalization in JC, during which to illustrate the meaning of globalization, my teacher gave the example of finding in a supermarket, apples from USA, bananas from Philippines, pears from China etc.

On the surface, all this seems good, especially for the consumer. We get to enjoy more varieties of food, even perishable ones like fruits and vegetables, all year round. Yet what we do not see and what is not reflected in the price are the many negative externalities involved in the production of say, one apple from USA. How is it even possible to trace its commodity chain? During the lecture on the same week, Prof Harvey Neo tried doing a similar process – the Life Cycle Analysis – on meat. As it turned out, the process was extremely complicated, involving sub-contracted companies and different actors at the various stages from the feed, rearing the animal, slaughtering, transporting, selling, and finally consuming it. Beyond food, the commodity chain of any product in the world is equally complex, that Annie Leonard of The Story of Stuff spent 10 years tracing and uncovering the hidden costs incurred by a typical ‘stuff’ (commodity) through “extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal.”

Globalization helps make the economic process more efficient by facilitating an international division of production (and production) processes, thus allowing companies to specialize and focus on their comparative advantage. Yet this also means it is extremely hard to know what really is in that orange in your hand. It may have been genetically modified, harvested by migrant workers paid barely enough to cover their living cost, watered by water from the fast-lowering groundwater table, transported by air freight … the list goes on. What we see and know is only the tip of the iceberg.

With this separation of consumer from product, I think it is very easy for us to turn a blind eye to the negative externalities generated in the process. We cannot really reconcile Nestlé’s alleged involvement in deforestation in Sabah for palm oil plantations with our Kit Kat bar, nor link the poor conditions of Nike sweatshops with our brand new Nike trainers. Perhaps it is just human nature to turn away from the ugly consequences and truths, and focus instead on our own instant gratification. Globalization has made it easier for us to do so.

[added April 10: I think even if we are all embedded and inseparable from the global web of conflict and inequality, it doesn't mean that we should be defeatist. If ignorance can be bliss, knowledge can also be power. I think we can all be more responsible consumers, and push for more controls/regulations and transparency whenever we can.]


Five: Politics of Sustainable Development

Should we advocate – or, to use a stronger word, preach – our idea of sustainable development to others? That was the underlying question I felt running through the presentation by Chris Tobias, the managing director of Forward, a sustainability consultancy for businesses. Towards the end of the question and answer session, someone asked him what he felt about his clients (businesses) and whether they were genuinely concerned about doing something for the environment or just jumping on the bandwagon and making a lot of noise. In reply, Chris said that both types were present, and though he did not explicitly mention it, I was sure he preferred the former, the ‘real’ environmentalists.


Looking at the bigger picture, there are many ways that one can think about sustainable development. Two main strands stand out, according to Collin Williams and Andrew Millington in their paper “The diverse and contested meanings of sustainable development”: ‘weaker’ sustainable development, where human (economic) development is deemed more important than the environment and thus development carries on with technological ‘fixes’ or tweaks to improve efficiency; and ‘stronger’ sustainable development, where a more biocentric (or environmental) perspective is adopted and changes are made to reduce demand on resources. Put simply, we can think of the former as switching to an energy-efficient air conditioner, and the latter as turning off the air conditioner altogether (and switching to a fan). In both scenarios, energy is saved, but to various extents.


Yet, is one perspective better than the other? For me, I definitely feel that we should make efforts to reduce demand and consumption, rather than just rely on increased efficiency, which Chris Tobias describes at simply “slowing down the process.” It is such that I look upon Singapore’s pledge to reduce carbon emissions to 16% below Business-as-usual levels with some disappointment, as absolute emissions are set to increase. Our government adopts a weaker sustainable development mindset, where economic development weighs more than environmental concerns. Should I, should we, be contented that some effort (no matter how small) helps, and fall short of pushing for greater cuts and a stronger sustainable development?


I think not. After all, sustainability is as much a political issue as it is an environmental one. By committing only to a 16% reduction in carbon emissions, our government reinstates its position that a weaker sustainable development is the best way to develop, and therefore that stronger sustainable development is not the way forward. Many times, in policies, media or business practices, it is inevitable that the presentation of one viewpoint necessarily excludes that of the others. And thus, it is perfectly okay to advocate our alternative viewpoints as better or equals. In fact, I feel that it should even be encouraged, especially when perspectives like stronger sustainable development envisions a better kind of society, with less destruction on the environment and alternative pursuits of well-being beyond economic growth.