Delving into Seth Godin’s philosophy of serving our tribes, it seems that the goal is to find a product or service that can positively impact one community (i.e. a tribe that already exists amongst us), while sustaining us (the providers of that product/service) – so that the systems we set up may long continue, and even scale. But that comes after benefitting a small group.
The difficulty lies in achieving both the former and the latter at the same time. Sometimes, truly impactful and sustainable solutions for our communities require plenty of layers of hard work and commitment, along with ingenuity, creativity and passion sustained throughout its systems. I guess it is fair to come to a realisation that, for entrepreneurs, the monetary incentives that sustains most businesses typically outweighs the aspect on “making a difference”, and for social science nerds like myself, we have plenty of critique of why solutions are bad whilst failing to come up with ideas, executing them and making money.
Recently, I came across an article which celebrates the invention of an AI food waste tracker, which initially impressed me – on the surface, it seemed to meet both communal needs and monetary incentives (as a tech & AI start-up which can scale, with a brilliant idea). Especially with lines/paragraphs like this that were re-posted on social media pages:
The following video explains the objectives to an identified problem, and the corresponding technological solution.
The AI food waste tracker is a solution that works for the clients (hotels and other dining places), by helping them save cost of purchasing excess food that is ultimately to be thrown away. Purportedly, it addresses the environmental issue of food waste. Unfortunately, when critically examined, both of these may not be the case at all. As a very critical but well-reasoned comment would point out its flaws: in terms of difficulties understanding the needs of clients (the businesses purchasing the AI tracker), as well as difficulties understanding the complex multi-scalar problems of food waste:
There is another problem: It does not solve the problem of hunger, which was initially identified. Does it really help the issue of food nutrition, health and hunger for lower-income folks?
Very unencouragingly, this brings me back to a cycle of assumptions around the food issues lower-income folks face:
Donated food is better than not donating food (Are distribution systems effective? Should we enhance food distribution in SG?)
But donated food (or thrown away food) tends to be poor in nutritional value, and are not that healthy
Food donation and distribution systems can be very tedious to set up and maintain, involving unsustainable work processes and lack generation of a profit margin or even revenue that sustains its efforts. Besides, they are difficult to scale.
It seems like the solution needs to be re-worked altogether. Not only does it have doubtful environmental benefits (would food waste really be reduced in earlier parts of the global production networks? Even if so, is that beneficial for starving farmers?), it seems completely disconnected from the community it is trying to serve.
Admirably, the initiative is bold enough to target clients (hotels & other dining places) that could afford the technology, and the technology is perhaps brilliant.
But here are some alternative — rather unformed thoughts of tackling the food nutrition, health and hunger issue:
Begin with a lower-income community in mind.
Understand how culture, sustainability, costs and other factors mediate choices that undermine health and nutrition. Get people to share their results on certain diets / meals / health foods, the monetary costs, convenience, and food miles.
Implement experiments amongst community members to see what dietary or lifestyle changes might work. Document this.
Find a way to re-embed poorer folks who cannot afford food amongst communities where there can potentially be a sharing culture.
Build a database of foods that people consume.
Maybe we can come up with our resources and what we support (e.g. locally grown food, medicinal herbs, plant-based, IF, keto).
Ideally, there should be research, and we (the ones serving our tribes) should have our own stances (albeit slightly differing from one another), and we are ready to consider, critique, debate, incorporate new knowledges. We are not necessarily the providers of information, but we are the architects of a robust system that serves the community and is for everyone. Making money is possible, but not the ultimate aim, maybe affiliate, and to sustain ourselves – there must be potential for scalability.
Then, through our identity, we can broaden our reach to welcome greater target audiences, from youths to elderly, including low-income folks w/ special emphasis/targeting projects.
Then, we can get businesses / organisations w similar values (health, environmental sustainability, local orgs) to work with us, collaborate via healthy, mutually beneficial partnerships.
We are not a society that discusses much on the value of grief and death.
We are ‘ascenders’; we constantly seek to elevate ourselves amongst the masses, and proudly define ourselves as superior in our own ways.
We want to feel good in our identities – Who doesn’t? To act as a beacon of light, we might even (want to) fight for change, justice and goodness in a divided world.
However, as we look toward and reach out enthusiastically for the skies, we have forgotten the necessity of appreciating the ground that has enabled us in the first place, the lowly Earth.
Unfortunately, this matter goes beyond a matter of gratitude. Our inability to examine and process lowly, Earthly things pertaining to our humanness – as compared to the grandeur of the skies where our hopes and dreams reside – literally stunts our growth, and makes us imbalanced individuals.
Without perspective of polarities and the dual nature of life, our linear obsession with ascending becomes our downfall.
Transition Phases of Life, and Sacrifice
In an information saturated society and technological age, we have been taught the ways – along with many tips and tricks – to achieve what we want, thereby making us very clever.
But something is missing, as we have not been taught what sacrifice or making space means, and the necessity of it. Often we fail because we are not ready ourselves to handle what is to come as we transition from one stage of life to another.
Undoubtedly there are the obvious transition phases in our lives, when a kid grows into an adolescent and into a mature adult, middle adulthood, old age, pregnancy and death.
During each of these transition phases, in order for the new event to be embraced and welcomed, it is clear, inevitable and undeniable that something has to be given up.
Just as a mother gives up the old freedom of her lifestyle to raise a child, a teenager makes numerous sacrifices to embrace what he conceives in his mind – as societally conditioned – as adulthood, whereas an older man relinquishes his impossible dreams as he embraces a new dawn in old age.
However, it is not only during these key milestones of our lives that such sacrifices must be made. As we seek to grow and evolve, we must grow stronger to handle the challenges to come.
This means that we must become aware of what aspects of our old conditioning, habits and identities – that have supported us up to this point – must be relinquished. For what is to come, these aspects of ourselves are no longer resourceful. We must let them go.
This is the concept of making space. By allowing the old to pass, we make space for something new to be manifest. For us to do greater things, we need new thoughts, knowledge, habits and rituals. The deeply subconscious beliefs that hint of a degrading “I am not good enough” must be confronted, undermined and replaced with more supportive, uplifting thoughts.
Thus, we must mourn. As humans, we are wired, conditioned and addicted to certain ways of life most familiar to us; we naturally seek stability and gravitate toward the default.
To mourn goes beyond merely recognising that our default is no longer useful. Instead, it is a conscious effort to feel sadly for these ways of living that were once supportive.
Because we are absolutely certain that we will get better (and we are getting better), we must deeply feel sad that no longer would we stuff junk food and alcohol down our bodies in order to numb ourselves from pain. We must deeply feel sad that the days we indulge in the comfort of our addictions – all of which fuel our needs and are generated by our deepest wounds – are no longer going to be tolerated. We must deeply feel sad that we would no longer let ourselves enjoy the cheap thrill of an egoistical win by hurting others in a needless argument.
The key, though, is not the feeling of sadness, but the awakening of ourselves. It is the process of bringing the wounds deeply embedded in our subconscious into light. The beautiful irony is that the darkness of mourning sheds the light of day upon us. By mourning what is to pass, we go within to negotiate with the inner demons that rule our lives, so that we eventually reach an agreement where they would no longer rule over us.
This ensures that we are adequately prepared for the next phase. We go into the lowliness of our souls, clean up the dirt within our psyches, and thus allow our heavy souls to finally delight in the hopes and possibilities of the skies. Truly, we have become better humans, bringing goodness to ourselves and others.
Yet, we must understand that this does not mean we have escaped our human frailties; we have merely done the necessary work sufficiently to get to this next destination of ours. And when we are ready to move on, the cycle of mourning resumes itself.
Mitigating climate change necessitates a multi-scalar effort. Global recognition of climate change has produced state-centred responses, relying on countries to reduce greenhouse emissions. However, examining Singapore’s (economics-based) measures to mitigate climate change does not inspire confidence. Singapore’s climate change commitments are weakened by the avoidance of a hard emissions cap (with the preference of an intensity-based approach) (Mock, 2019); this means carbon emission levels are predicated upon economic growth – emissions may increase with growth despite stated aims of peaking emissions by 2030. Furthermore, Singapore’s carbon tax is low by the World Bank’s estimates of carbon price necessary to meet the Paris Agreement’s targets (ibid.).
However, limiting the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degree Celsius entails “‘unprecedented’ transitions in all aspects of society” (Mead, 2018); climate change mitigation requires diverse and multi-scalar societal transformations. Clearly, inadequate economics-based mitigation paradigms of state actors reflect “the prevailing notion that the market acts as an efficient and equitable distributor of resources” (Okereke, 2010: 471), the priorities and politics of state actors – legitimizing economics-based solutions – limit the transformative scope of their interventions.
In Singapore, growth-centric priorities have led to instrumentalist valuations of the environment (Neo, 2007). Utilizing the environment as an instrument for economic growth, the state legitimizes economics-based measures for climate change mitigation – mitigation must occur without compromising growth. This is evident through Singapore’s technocratic ‘accomplishments’ in urban planning that support economic growth whilst claiming to benefit the environment (Neo, 2010), thereby advancing a ‘greener’ global city façade through environmental infrastructure and technology such as ‘green’ buildings. Thus, it could be argued that the politics of the state ‘fixes’ technocratic solutions to climate change that fail to contest deeper systemic root issues; systems of environmental exploitation for capitalist gains persist.
Fundamentally, instrumentalist valuations of the environment are inadequate, legitimizing growth-centric solutions rather than transformative ones. This posits the question: Can instrumentalist environmental valuations – predominantly advanced by top-down institutional governance – be contested (and redefined) by ordinary individuals of lower agency besides nation-states and corporations)?
Alternative Political Spaces: Foregrounding Nature’s Intrinsic Values
Perhaps, one way to reshape environmental valuations is through foregrounding nature’s intrinsic values in a capitalist world that exploits it instrumentally. Figure 1 shows screenshots of a video that illustrates how nature impacts an individual, who is systemically entrapped in a world characterized by a nature-society dichotomy. It depicts Katabasis (an ancient Greek concept), which represents a journey into one’s essence, whereby nature helps to bring one closer towards his/her fundamentals, unpolluted by the socially constructed, man-made world.
At the beginning of the video, a prevailing nature-society dichotomy is illustrated, as the man leaves his office work environment in order to enter nature in search of his fundamentals. Then, nature is depicted as vast, possessing a rich essence and significant intrinsic qualities. It surrounds the individual man as he does a movement meditation, entering a peaceful state. At the end, the sounds of the man’s footsteps merge with those of the winds and surrounding nature, and the echoes continue after the screen blacks out. This merging, characterized by non-separateness and the arbitrariness thereof, implies that nature and mankind are mutually reinforcing and ‘walking together’. The point is that ‘walking with nature’ can help ease the discontent of our lives, which are governed by systems that anthropocentrically exploit nature and create a dichotomous separation.
Arguably, as climate change intensifies environmental degradation and social problems, more content like this video may be produced by individuals/groups, serving as (bottom-up) responses that remind society of the intrinsic values of the environment. While this video is not framed in the context of climate change, it represents alternative platforms where intrinsic environmental valuations can nonetheless be highlighted. In contrast with top-down state politics that ‘fixes’ economics-based solutions to climate change, these platforms represent alternative political spaces that can destabilize predominantly instrumentalist environmental valuations determined by elite and capitalist institutions.
Besides, reconstructing environmental valuations without referencing climate change – and effectively linking these valuations to human well-being – allows surpassing of mitigation barriers surrounding climate change politics, such as climate change skepticism. A conventional and undeniably important response to skepticism is effective communication backed by the physical sciences, but such success can be ultimately limited to citizens who “[do not] already have a strong [political] opinion on the issue” (Kauffman, 2016). Instead, a plurality of alternative platforms advancing appreciation and intrinsic valuations of nature could more universally appeal (even to sceptics and elite institutions), potentially uprooting anthropocentric valuations entrenched in the mechanics of most unsustainable societal systems that reproduce climate change.
A Scalar Perspective to Contesting Instrumentalist Environmental Valuations
As climate change is reproduced globally through multiple scales, a scalar perspective to contesting instrumentalist environmental valuations can enhance the efficacy of mitigating climate change. This poses questions of increasing the scales, agencies and diversities of actors involved. Particularly, marginalized actors must be humanized and re-presented as agents of change.
Extreme weather events render many homelands uninhabitable (Davoudi, 2014). As ‘climate refugees’ increasingly seek shelter across international frontiers, this has led to the scalar (re)production of climate refugees and their ‘dystopian’ environments as ‘threats’ to sovereign states (Dalby, 2013); violent responses – such as interventionist practices of territorial dispossession – by states have resulted (ibid.). Rather than offering stern commitments of radical/immediate greenhouse gas reductions, instrumentalist representations of environmental problems as ‘risk’ externalizes climate change and shifts the blame, absolving larger polluting nations of responsibility while “entrench[ing] climate refugees as the truth about effects of sea level rise on small islands” (Farbotko and Lazrus, 2012: 383).
Thus, to offer alternatives to economics-based, growth-centric climate change mitigation from a scalar perspective, the lived narratives (and voices) of marginalized groups (e.g. climate refugees) must contribute to a multi-scalar effort at contesting instrumentalist environmental valuations. Within the United Nations system, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) functions primarily as an ad hoc lobby and negotiating voice for low-lying developing coastal states. They contest the label of ‘climate refugees’ (McNamara and Gibson, 2009), by highlighting that the islanders want to be recognized as citizens of sovereign and independent nations – despite being fictionalized as victims, they are not weaker nations that easily succumb to the actions of larger, polluting nations. These lived narratives serve to relocate the problem of climate change in the carbon emissions of larger, polluting nations, producing trans-border alliances that enroll even more actors to join in their fight (such as 350.org).
After all as climate change intensifies, even if the world “gradually shift[s] away from its reliance on fossil fuels as stronger climate policies come into force” (Mock, 2019), low-lying and vulnerable nations cannot passively await economic-based paradigms of climate change mitigation to save the day. As a low-lying nation-state itself, it is interesting to observe Singapore’s responses, from its climate policies and civil society in years to come. Fortunately, the possibilities of reconstructing environmental valuations are situated in the mundane and everyday realm, where open discussions of societal values in relation to the environment can occur from the ground-up.
Dalby, S. (2013). Biopolitics and Climate Security in the Anthropocene. Geoforum, 49, 184-192.
Davoudi, S. (2014). Climate change, securitisation of nature, and resilient urbanism. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 32(2), 360-375.
Farbotko, C., & Lazrus, H. (2012). The First Climate Refugees? Contesting Global Narratives of Climate Change in Tuvalu. Global Environmental Change, 22(2), 382-390.