There are tendencies for climate change to become depoliticized, through the indoctrination of individual responsibility by dominant institutions without efforts to structurally alter unsustainable systems (Melo-Escrihuela, 2008). My undertaking of #Climatechallenge (2019) over a period of 10 days has elucidated questions of agency, pertaining to how environmental politics should be championed individually and collectively to tackle climate change.
As an individual who is vegan most of the time, the lifestyle change I picked was to minimize waste by participating in the Bring Your Own (BYO) campaign (to reduce disposables and especially plastics use), while ensuring that every dish and food product I purchase is completely plant-based (whereas previously I may have assumed without stringent checks of ingredients). Essentially, the multiplicity of actions undertaken in this #Climatechallenge entailed a process of struggle which I deem integral to the enactment of environmental ethics, as opposed to a static mode of living I grew accustomed to – being ‘ethically’ vegan without confronting and mobilizing the politics associated with my lifestyle.
My (Insignificant) Efforts: Plastics, Culture, Institutions and Everyday Life
I found my individual BYO efforts to be relatively insignificant, due to a lack of support from existing structures. Calls for plastic bag charges/taxes in Singapore have been rejected by the government, retailers and consumers, with plastic bags deemed necessary to hygienically dispose waste (Hicks, 2018). For many, these institutional disincentives appear unjustified considering the fussy requirements our modern lifestyles entail. There was once I made an unexpected trip during midday and did not bring my food container along, which resulted in my usage of takeaway disposables – a choice to sacrifice the environment rather than adjusting my plans/schedules. This reflects how ethical consumption is disembedded from mundane everyday living realities, predominantly predicated upon anthropocentric orientations that perpetuate the obscuring of environmental injustices at multiple scales by individuals, businesses and governments. Here, the ecological linkages between plastics (and their incineration) and the generation of greenhouse gases are continually obscured by our hegemonic reproduction of climate change.
While capitalists and governing institutions are complicit in reproducing unsustainable systems through cost-cutting, maintaining status quo and power, the role of everyday institutions (e.g. non-governmental organizations, popular culture and media) is integral to enhancing the visibility of environmental degradation. What initially prompted and sustained my mostly vegan lifestyle is the documentary ‘Cowspiracy’ – it rendered visible the manipulative tendencies of the meat/dairy industries for purposes of capitalist accumulation and preservation of power, by mapping meat/dairy consumption unto a complex web of unecological environmental processes. Although the visibility of human-environmental linkages can foster reflexivity amongst consumers (by enabling knowledgeable evaluation of the legitimacy of institutional discourses and practices organized around production/consumption), structural impediments further hinder the translation of such visibility into agentic practices. Despite my knowledge and efforts to eliminate plastics/disposables, some of my purchases come with plastic packaging. Large-scale corporations continually generate significant amounts of plastic and material wastes, which become accompaniments and by-products of our purchases. Inevitably, I am a complicit consumer unless I commit to abstaining from plastics entirely, which would create a dent in my lifestyle through cost and inconvenience. This portrays that as consumers who are inextricably embedded in unsustainable structures, our participation in environmental ethics hinges upon the recognition of our (limited) degrees and forms of agencies, i.e. whether we deem we could contribute effectively within our means, and how we thus decide to participate in transformational environmental politics.
The Problem with Ethical Labelling
Arguably, my aforementioned ‘ethical’ efforts before and during #Climatechallenge are inconsequential, compared to those targeted at structural transformations to our food and material systems, such as better policy, political activism and corporate-NGO collaborations. Questions of agency thus suggest the importance of not over-emphasizing and presuming solutions at the individual scale. During this #Climatechallenge, through greater diligence of ensuring that the products and dishes I purchase in stalls and supermarkets are vegan, I realized that food labelling for ethical consumerism could serve two purposes: to enable ethical consumers to purchase the right products, and to serve as exclusionary instruments that deter non-vegans by conveying an inadvertent message that certain foods are not designed for them, and are often priced out of reach. This portrays a contradiction that surfaces from the emergence of ethical consumers and their specific everyday needs. While better labelling caters to individual ethical consumers and their shopping requirements, we should debate its exclusionary tendencies that potentially hinder the enrolment of more mainstream consumers into environmentally friendly practices – rather than universally supporting ethical labelling and the design of pre-conceived environments and instruments for ethical consumerism.
Beyond the individual: Diverse Mobilizations of Everyday Environmental Politics
Therefore, if modern living is oriented towards anthropocentricism and the invisibilities that perpetuate unsustainable structures, tackling climate change then involves harnessing societal conditions for ethical reorientations that mobilize a multi-scalar recognition of political agencies. This past Monday, I participated in a canteen vendor outreach project at the Deck, organized by an NUS environmental group in a push for more vendors to cater greater varieties of plant-based options on Mondays. The premise is if more plant-based varieties are accessible, both the material/infrastructural and socio-cultural environments would be enhanced via positive perceptions and cultures of plant-based eating, driving greater demand for environmentally-friendly alternatives within hegemonic systems. While this #Climatechallenge entails a lifestyle change, I deem participation in such projects as part of sustainable lifestyle politics that actively contest unsustainable systems via a continual process of struggle. This illustrates that questions (and reconsiderations) of agency might continually open up new and relatively unexplored terrains, as strategies of sustainable lifestyle politics are contextualized and mobilized differently in multiple spaces and forms.
Collectively, it is essential to create everyday conditions for reflexive environmental reorientations. What might deter my BYO commitment after #Climatechallenge is my lack of social embeddedness within a collective group (e.g. ground-up initiative, non-governmental organization) that continually reinforce the visibility of unecological human-environmental linkages that occur with the use of plastics/disposables, and through which the forging of reflexivity that keeps me accountable. After all, due to our embeddedness in anthropocentric structures, it is essential for diverse everyday collectives – in multiple spaces and cultures – to re-orientate us continually to practices of environmental responsibility.
Melo-Escrihuela, C. (2008). Promoting Ecological Citizenship: Rights, Duties and Political Agency. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 7(2), 113-134.
Hicks, R. (2018). Singapore environment ministry pushes back against MP’s proposal to cut single-use plastic and tax bags. Eco-Business. Available at: https://www.eco-business.com/news/singapore-environment-ministry-pushes-back-against-mps-proposal-to-cut-single-use-plastic-and-tax-bags/ [Accessed February 25, 2019].
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