Soul Topics

‘Experiments’ for climate change politics: Examining local food systems

Climate change results in the inevitability of a future plagued with uncertainties. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, limiting the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degree Celsius would entail “unprecedented” transitions in all aspects of society” (Mead, 2018), through engaging multiple actors, systems and scales. Such engagement often takes on an ‘experimental’ nature, where new ideas and methods are diversely harnessed “to open up new political spaces for governing climate change in the city” (Broto and Bulkeley, 2012: 92). As such, there has been a blooming heterogeneity of responses to climate change, even amongst ordinary individuals.

In Singapore, I have encountered people and collectives who have harnessed aspirational targets aimed at systemic change of unsustainable food systems, re-envisioning the city and its ideal/harmonious human-environment relations. Having participated in Dumpster Diving with the Singapore Food Rescue movement, I observed how participants (including myself) are put through an experiential learning process that introduces a fundamentally re-thinking of modern lifestyles; its spirit of freeganism (obtaining food at little/no cost) underlies the questioning of unsustainable food systems – which we are inextricably embedded in – behind the enormous generation of (food, plastics, animal) wastes. Further, open collective inquiry lies at the heart of engaging ordinary citizens. Foodscape Collective, a ground-up movement, centralises food by creating curiosity around it through its communal spaces/platforms. Facilitating questions regarding the environmental impacts and systems constituting the production of various food categories, it aspires to mainstream (environmentally-friendly) urban farming practices in Singapore (Figure 1) – thereby revolutionizing the ways citizens (systemically) engage with food.

Experimentations | Alternative Local Food Systems
Figure 1: Sketches: Visions and Aspirations of Foodscape Collective. Mainstreaming farming practices in urban spaces. “Life can grow amidst the cracks. With a little space, trust, creativity and vitality form the way roots form – hidden from sight but substantial.”
[Source: Foodscape Collective, Instagram]

These local strategies represent the “multiplicity of climate change responses emerging outside formal contexts of decision-making” (Broto and Bulkeley, 2012: 92), formulated through experimentation. Yet, they are arguably undervalued in terms of scale and relevance in climate action, due to the less technical and often non-transferrable nature of such contextually-specific projects. In contrast, global recognition of fossil-fuelled industrial capitalism driving climate change has produced state-centred responses, relying on countries to reduce greenhouse emissions. This is predicated upon international cooperation, facilitated through international meetings (e.g. World Climate Conferences). Such apparent necessity for large scale, top-down implementation of climate policy is furthermore supported by calls for a technology revolution, that entail “complete decarbonisation of the global economy by the second half of this century” (Peters et al., 2015: 8). For instance, most climate scenarios/pathways for limiting global warming to 2 degree Celsius require the “essential role of large-scale deployment of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and [relevant] bioenergy”, despite such technologies being immature and untested (ibid.).

 

However, historical evidences have portrayed the futility of top-down approaches governing climate change. International cooperation remains bleak. The lack of international accountability remains prevalent today, as the basis of COP 21 ‘success’ in Paris relies upon ‘Intended National Determined Contributions’ (INDCs) – this neglects domestic binding emission limits/caps for Annex 1 nations. These collaborative difficulties reflect a broader governing discourse of ‘sustainable development’, which has become hegemonic (via the Brundtland Report) with an ideological “inclin[ation] towards the growth and modernization viewpoints” (Du Pisani, 2006: 94); it was conceptualized to guide technological change – such as “switch[ing] from non‑renewable to renewable resources” (Brookfield, 1991: 48) – to preserve a development/growth paradigm. This posits the question: What are the implications when top-down governance of climate change (such as large-scale technological revolutions) falls under a growth/development paradigm? Then, it could be argued that a predominance of technocratic solutions depoliticizes climate change (Davoudi, 2014), whereby its systemic, inherently political root causes are masked through technical-rational interventions.

 

In fact, investigating Singapore’s food systems governance in the context of climate change reveals these paradigmatic realities. With regards to plant-based living, the Singapore state has avoided support of plant-based lifestyles, in fear of driving away large (meat-based) corporations which the state relies upon for taxes. However, with regards to addressing food systems’ complicity in climate change production, there is a lack of international pressure to destabilize the state’s anthropocentric growth-led priorities. For instance, the state fails to acknowledge the relevance of plant-based diets in Singapore’s 2018 climate action narrative, as the United Nations assigns carbon footprint to the country of food production rather than consumption – Singapore’s efforts of reducing animal-based food consumption would not translate into numbers/statistics indicative of progress of its current footprint. Instead, Singapore’s climate action narrative (and pledges) involves ‘brown’ concerns, privileging individual efforts over systemic changes to production/consumption (Figure 2). In this way, the United Nations’ metrics reinforces the state’s “technocratic, managerial, and scientific approach to environmental governance” (Han, 2017: 19). This leaves the contestation of unsustainable food systems to the jurisdictions of local groups (e.g. Foodscape Collective, Singapore Food Rescue) working to re-embed ecological values, where experiments embody a ‘socio-technical’ character, targeted not just at material transformations but at “the cultures, norms and conventions that determine collective GHGs emissions” from the ground-up (Broto and Bulkeley, 2012: 98). Thus, the necessary distinction is that such localised strategies are unconstrained by top-down political channels. They harness multiple methodologies to engage diverse spaces and actors that international cooperation could not, due to the latter’s anthropocentric paradigms which continue to govern (technical-rational) mitigation strategies.

 

Climate Action Narrative | Neglecting Food Systems
Figure 2: Singapore declared 2018 its year of climate action. Its climate action narrative (and pledges) involves reduced waste generation and ‘brown’ concerns (e.g. pollution, efficient resource usage), and excludes plant-based diets. (Ministry of Environment and Water Resources, 2018)

 

References

Brookfield, H. (1991). Environmental Sustainability with Development: What Prospects for a Research Agenda? European Journal of Development Research, 3(1), 42-66.

Broto, V, & Bulkeley, H. (2013). A survey of urban climate change experiments in 100 cities. Global Environmental Change, 23(1), 92-102.

Davoudi, S. (2014). Climate change, securitisation of nature, and resilient urbanism. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 32(2), 360-375.

Du Pisani, J. A. (2006). Sustainable development – historical roots of the concept. Environmental Sciences, 3(2), 83-96.

Han, H. (2017). Singapore, a Garden City: Authoritarian Environmentalism in a Developmental State. Journal of Environment & Development, 26(1), 3–24.

Mead, L. (2018). IPCC Special Report: Limiting Global Warming to 1.5°C Will Require “Unprecedented” Transitions. SDG Knowledge Hub. Available at: https://sdg.iisd.org/news/ipcc-special-report-limiting-global-warming-to-1-5c-will-require-unprecedented-transitions/ [Accessed April 5, 2019].

Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources. (2018). Resources Climate Action SG. Available at: https://www.mewr.gov.sg/resources-climate-action-sg [Accessed April 4, 2019].

Peters, G. P., Andrew, R. M., Solomon, S. & Friedlingstein, P. (2015). Measuring a fair and ambitious climate agreement using cumulative emissions. Environmental Research Letters, 10(10), 105004.

 

 

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