Monday, June 24, 2013

Ecological musings

Bukit Timah;

As voting for this year's Singapore Blog Awards draws to a close, I'd like to end with some final thoughts.

When it comes to giving tips and points on doing your part for the environment, one tends to encounter the usual suggestions on the 3Rs, cutting down on the amount of waste generated, saving water and electricity, and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. These can all be summarised by this overarching concept:

Reduce your level of consumption of the Earth's finite resources.

In essence, it's all about operating under the knowledge that the Earth, for all its bounty and seemingly infinite ability to provide us with everything we want, does have its limits, and our civilisation is close to crossing that critical threshold, if it has not already done so. Patterns of consumption are unevenly distributed throughout the planet, and are the result of inequalities in the systems under which resources are extracted, processed, and distributed. We are running on a global deficit, and though we operate under the belief that the coming generations will develop new technologies and innovation that will delay or even stave off the inevitable collapse, time is running out.

Severn Suzuki (12), 1992:

Brittany Trilford (17), 2012:

Not much seems to have changed in the last 20 years.

Our civilisation is heavily reliant on fossil fuels. The need to extract and process the raw fuels into forms usable by us results in the need for massive installations that often necessitate the destruction and degradation of natural habitats, with the occasional accident resulting in even more catastrophic damage. Fossil fuels are burned to provide us with energy so that we can have light, function at comfortable temperatures, and can operate appliances that keep things cold, clean our homes and belongings, cook our food, and provide us with amusement or entertainment. These same fossil fuels power the machines that transport us over land, sea, and air, and are integral to virtually every step of the manufacturing process. The very act of burning coal, oil, and natural gas results in deterioration of air quality, and contributes to elevated levels of greenhouse gases that are blamed for climate change, with potentially dire consequences for communities and ecosystems all around the world.

Here's a bunch of infographics that cover various aspects, from the impact that our lifestyles have on the consumption and extraction of resources and generation of waste, to ecological footprints and greenhouse gas emissions. Click on each one to enlarge.

It sounds very nice and noble to say that you're doing something for the environment, but what's the ultimate purpose? In the end, almost all arguments for protecting the environment take on a very anthropocentric worldview; it's really all about securing our future, stretching our resources so as to ensure our survival as a civilisation, at least until we've figured out new technologies that will create new resources for us to exploit, or until we've found a way to finally colonise space and settle on other worlds. Even arguments appealing to the intrinsic benefits of nature are based on human perceptions of value and notions of what is good (for us). We talk about living sustainably, knowing all too well that the very basis of our civilisation is still fixated on extracting resources from the Earth to maintain current models of economic growth and development.

We now lead lives driven by technology and consumption, our reliance on the Earth obscured by a human-made system of countless intermediate steps that transform raw materials into the finished products that we've just purchased, and ultimately fated to be thrown out and disposed of. We forget where our food comes from. We forget about the way water, oxygen, and a host of nutrients and other ingredients essential for life are continually recycled. We forget about the minerals that need to be mined, the metal ores that need to be dug up and smelted, the fuels that need to be extracted from deep within the crust and refined. Safely ensconced within our grand monuments to human ingenuity and innovation that usually shield us from the worst of the elements, we forget that nothing much has changed after all: everything we use and consume still ultimately comes from the Earth. Unaware and oblivious to our continued reliance and dependence on the planet's finite resources, we fail to realise how our lifestyles and habits can have serious impacts on landscapes all across the globe, whether it's the sea off Patagonia, the Arctic ice caps, or the Borneo rainforests.

In many ways, we have lost sight of a basic fundamental fact. Despite our success in technological advances and what we perceive as a rise to dominance over the planet, we are still reliant on the Earth and its myriad ecological processes for our survival. From the countless resources we extract, to the food we consume, the oxygen we breathe, and the water we drink, we cannot escape the fact that we cannot completely sever our ties with the natural world.

When we talk about doing our part to "save" the "environment", just what is it that we're trying to protect? We can talk and debate all day long about fossil fuels, renewable energy, carbon credits, and banning plastic bags, but still fail to grasp one of the key motivations at the very core of the original environmental movement.

As Paul Kingsnorth writes in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist:
I became an "environmentalist" because of a strong emotional reaction to wild places and the other-than-human world: to beech trees and hedgerows and pounding waterfalls, to songbirds and sunsets, to the flying fish in the Java Sea and the canopy of the rainforest at dusk when the gibbons come to the waterside to feed. From that reaction came a feeling, which became a series of thoughts: that such things are precious for their own sake, that they are food for the human soul, and that they need people to speak for them to, and defend them from, other people, because they cannot speak our language and we have forgotten how to speak theirs. And because we are killing them to feed ourselves and we know it and we care about it, sometimes, but we do it anyway because we are hungry, or we have persuaded ourselves that we are.

But these are not, I think, very common views today. Today's environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world. Most of us wouldn't even know where to find it. We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called "sustainability." What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world's rich people—us—feel is their right, without destroying the "natural capital" or the "resource base" that is needed to do so.

It is, in other words, an entirely human-centered piece of politicking, disguised as concern for "the planet." In a very short time—just over a decade—this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in between. The success of environmentalism has been total—at the price of its soul.
Our lifestyles have created a situation in which people are disconnected from the rest of the natural world, unaware that their survival rests upon the health and resilience of these systems and relationships. We can go through the motions, talking about recycling paper and reducing energy consumption, without truly appreciating why.

And the rot starts early too; if children are not being overwhelmed with schoolwork, they are being kept indoors because of parents concerned about the possible risks and dangers from being outside. It's clearly visible, even in Singapore: many older Singaporeans, especially those who grew up in the kampungs, feel nostalgic about their childhood pastimes. If children weren't occupied with tending to small vegetable plots or fruit orchards, or raising poultry and livestock, many spent their time catching fishes and tadpoles in the drains, chasing butterflies and dragonflies through the fields and bushes, climbing trees to pick fruits, and so on. How often do you see children engaged in such activities these days?

It is a problem that many people have fretted about for years, if not decades. These days, the malady even has an 'official' name: nature deficit disorder.

Coral reef, Sentosa;

I've always been an advocate for spending time outside, experiencing nature in some form. Some may call it 'communing with nature', while I like to call it 'nature therapy', but it's perhaps the simplest way to combat nature deficit disorder, and to ultimately tackle the culture of consumerism and resource exploitation that sits at the heart of our environmental problems. It doesn't have to mean hiking through jungles or climbing mountains; many people simply don't realise that Singapore is situated within a hotspot for biodiversity, and that you can find a great deal of species during a visit to your typical neighbourhood town park.

It's about rediscovering our links to the rest of the natural world, and reawakening the knowledge that humans are just a single species out of millions, whose survival depends on the integrity of the relationships shared with a multitude of other species. When you really look beyond the differences that separate us from the other living things, you soon realise that we are fundamentally similar. We're all carbon-based lifeforms, made up of the same molecules but in different configurations. We all share a common ancestry, with every living species representing a tiny twig of the massive tree of life, all in pursuit of one ultimate goal: to have one's genes passed down to the next generation.

And this whole spectacle of life, from the often brutal, violent struggles between predator and prey, to the intricate symbiotic partnerships formed when different species collaborate instead of compete, from the epic migrations of creatures across continents and oceans to the sudden burst of colours as flowers bloom in a desert after the rain, everything has taken place over the last 3.5 billion years on a single stage.

When you reflect on the fact that the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years, and realise that everything ever accomplished or achieved by humans took place in the span of less than a hundred thousand years, you can't help but feel humbled. Indeed, all our epic tales of conquest and discovery, our crises and disasters and triumphs, all of this barely registers when compared against the vast enormity of time that the Earth has spent orbiting the Sun. And in all that time, a myriad of processes have shaped and moulded the landscapes, consequently driving the evolution of every species that has ever lived on this world.
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859)

Sungei Buloh;

Consider that the Earth is a very small planet in a rather otherwise unremarkable solar system. Only then can you truly begin to entertain the idea that maybe we're not that special after all. Sure, we've managed to change and alter much of the Earth's environments, and exert great power and influence over the survival and evolution of so many other species, but to this day, we're still stranded on a tiny little speck in the cosmos.

But it's hardly a reason to feel insignificant. Instead, with the knowledge that we are but mere transient inhabitants on this planet, the product of millions of years of evolution that have governed the lives of every other species, and subject to the same laws of nature that have shaped the rest of the universe, I feel a sense of connection, one that transcends all man-made boundaries. We're not defined by notions of race, or religion, or nationality, or gender; rather, all living things that have ever existed on this planet, including every single human being, are linked in an unbroken thread of kinship that stretches all the way back through the eons, forming a grand narrative of evolution, ecology, and extinction, or what paleontologist Scott Sampson has referred to as the Great Story.
Arguably Darwin's greatest contribution was revealing the Great Story, offering up an astounding, evidence-based origin myth that encompasses not only all human cultures, but all life on Earth. More than 30 years ago, biologist E. O. Wilson stated that, "the evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have." He went on to add that this same story, "retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic." In the intervening decades, and for the first time, fields like cosmology, geology, paleontology, and archaeology have greatly augmented this myth, generating for the first time a scientific story of the universe, life, humanity, and mind. We now recognize the universe as a single, unified event kicked off by the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. Yet the Great Story—variously dubbed the "Epic of Evolution," the "New Story," and the "Universe Story," among others—is virtually absent from all stages of our education system. Consequently, 150 years after Darwin's Origin, this evolutionary epic still has minimal influence on worldviews (other than through the erroneous notion of inexorable progress).


The Great Story, expanded beyond biology to encompass cosmos and culture, deserves to reside at the very core of the education curriculum. Indigenous peoples had their origin myths, and we must embrace our own 21st Century myth, incomplete yet the most accurate glimpse of our origins we've ever had. This astounding story deserves to be told and retold, with appropriate increases in the level of the discussion, from elementary school though high school and on into the postgraduate years. Sustainability will require that people live in relationship with nature, that they feel compassion and empathy for the places they live. Yet meaning, purpose, and belonging have less to do with where we are at any given moment than where we've been and where we're going. As stated by John Haught, "Darwin has gifted us with an account of life whose depth, beauty and pathos—when seen in the context of the larger cosmic Epic of Evolution — exposes us afresh to the raw reality of the sacred and to a resoundingly meaningful universe."

There is something spiritually overwhelming (some might even say religious) when it comes to contemplating this primal connection that we all share with the rest of the universe. How does one even begin to grasp the revelation that humanity is so inextricably linked to phenomena that seem so distant, and seemingly insignificant compared to everything else? It's a sense of wonder, of amazement and awe, of the realisation that there is still so much more to learn and discover. It's sobering to entertain the thought that we are not at the centre of the universe, while at the same time, it empowers us with a purpose, to explore and experiment and try to find out as much as we can, with all the tools and skills that we have developed in order to unravel the mysteries. And instead of an arrogant sense of entitlement and dominion over the Earth and all its other inhabitants, perhaps we will begin to see the world in a different light, not as something to be extracted for resources, but rather, a library full of wisdom and lessons, provided we don't run riot, ripping up the pages, smashing the shelves, and setting books on fire. When progress and development are gauged not by profits and stock markets, but by a shared thirst for intellectual upgrading and knowledge, perhaps we might then see a pressing need to avoid further corrupting the database and wrecking more information before we can even acknowledge its existence, let alone decipher it.

We are characters in this great epic tale, set on this grand stage called Earth, featuring a diverse cast that spans 4.5 billion years. For now, our role is ambiguous: villain? Villain-turned-hero? The choice isn't governed by any scriptwriter or director. There's no deus ex machina, no reset button to start all over again, no time machine to undo the mistakes.

Like it or not, Homo sapiens is a species that has become a force of nature unto itself, with the power to either nurture and heal, or ruin and obliterate. We exist in a world of marvel and splendour, and it is up to us to decide what sort of legacy we wish to leave behind for our descendants. Even in the wake of any global ecological catastrophe, and the collapse of the ecosystems that sustain us, it is likely that humans will somehow survive, and adapt, as we always have. Even if we wiped ourselves out (and a significant chunk of biodiversity along with us), life will find a way, and continue. But what sort of world will we leave behind? What would our descendants think of us, the civilisation that knew the problems, yet couldn't get its act together and solve them?

I'm fully aware of the fact that as a person living in a developed country like Singapore, my ecological footprint is already massive to begin with. And as much as I try to reduce my impact with simple lifestyle choices, nobody is perfect. The decisions I make every day in terms of the clothes I wear, the food I eat, the products I purchase, the mode of transportation I use to get around, all have larger ramifications on resources harvested from all over the planet. I wish more people realised that there was more to life in Singapore than just chasing wealth, yet at the same time, I acknowledge that it is precisely such economic development that grants me the comfort to contemplate such matters, instead of occupying my time with fighting for survival.

But just because I'm also guilty of contributing to environmental destruction doesn't mean that I'm not going to try to do something. I might not be able to do much as an individual, but at the very least, I can share the wonders of Singapore's remaining wild places, and let people realise what we are losing. Which is why I've been a very passionate and vocal advocate for biodiversity, for protecting our green spaces and natural heritage, and nurturing a deeper appreciation for our place as just another species that is reliant on the integrity of the intricate web which connects all living things.

Cyrene Reef;

So, at the end of this long, rambling post, what's the takeaway?

My perspectives on caring for the environment have largely been ecocentric, trying to raise awareness of the fact that there's a side of Singapore that not many of us are aware of. Although we have undergone much change over the last few centuries, and in the process destroyed most of our original wild spaces, we still retain little pockets of biodiversity that may continue to persist and flourish far into the future, and maybe even expand, provided we allow them to. Of course, human needs will invariably take precedence, but just as how we often trot out the need to balance development with conservation, so I believe that it is possible to achieve a better balance between the needs of the ecosystem with the needs of humans (which often turn out to be wants, not needs). Some may choose to calculate the benefits and costs compared to simply converting a seemingly useless space in the name of "progress", but you can know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Go out. Explore Singapore's remaining wild places. Open your eyes, and observe. Listen carefully, above the din of human voices and traffic, for the sounds of nature. Read and learn more about the countless other non-human lives all around us, in your neighbourhood, in this country, on this planet. Weep for what has been lost. Celebrate what remains, or what has returned from the brink. Share your experiences and excitement with others, so that they may someday understand and realise what they have missed all along, and join you. And speak up for those whose voices we are incapable of understanding - the forests, the reefs, the plants and animals whose value we overlook so easily.

Chek Jawa;

No other species has had such great power to threaten the survival of so many other species, and yet, it is this same species that possesses the power to secure a future for virtually all the other species.

Postscript: This post was written sometime back, and sat in my Drafts, unfinished, for nearly a year. I thought it was worth publishing some of my thoughts about what it meant to care for the environment, and decided that it was a fitting way to conclude my series of posts on SBA Plus, since the voting period for the Singapore Blog Awards has come to an end.

(Cross-posted to SBA Plus)