The Environment

#ClimateChallenge19: BYO, ethical re-orientations & related/relevant stuff

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.

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Purchases from vegan BYO grocery shopping. Some purchases inevitably come with plastic packaging.

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.

 

References

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].

 

*Uploading my essays in the slightest hopes of giving them a new lease of life.

The Environment

Marginalised Communities and a Foreign Language: Should we all become environmentalists?

The environment is an overlooked concept unlike the recognition of personal merit and achievements. Broadly speaking, human exploitation of the environment (as manifested in global issues of capitalism, global warming, factory farming etc) has underscored the evidently increasing divide between humans and our environment, leaving out the recognition of co-production which is at the heart of the issue: Just as we exercise agency over the environment, the implications are that the quality of our environment consequently produces us. Not only does this mean that we are intertwined with – not separate from – our environment, it means that the brokenness of our world is a reflection of our broken humanity, and what we do with our environment matters.

In my previous posts I have also discussed how the world is ultimately shaped by the culmination of our inner selves or collective consciousness; it would be a contradiction to delve into topics of feminism, social inequality, vegetarianism and climate change in an effort to reconcile the broken world – in layman terms, “do good” – without a simultaneous effort on our part at self-betterment. The principle is that we unfailingly project our intimate, personal and mistakenly “hidden” realities unto the world, such that we could not better the world without becoming better ourselves.

In this blog, I would consider its reverse, but paramount principle. In order to move forward as a human collective, it is insufficient to merely work on self-betterment; dedicating ourselves to the betterment of our environment (i.e. the external world we live in) is just as important. This is because our inherent interactions with our environment unfailingly determine our inner state, the well-being of our human collective and our future.

Not good enough? Consider the social environments these institutions have constructed for us – our meritocratic system, family and the prisons

Generally some of us might have something in common with the marginalised: a poor self-identity. Yet, the eye of our failings often neglect to extend outwards and examine the four walls surrounding it. Wherever we look, culture might communicate in such a way as to point the finger back at us, subtly and intrudingly dropping us messages that might sound like I’m not good enough, it’s my fault, and I didn’t work hard enough to deserve X. While social media for most people is guilty as a major culprit, the meritocratic system ought to receive its fair share of blame.As with most political promises of happiness that serve to blind the non-elite individual with bright colors of a brighter future, meritocracy is a lopsided concept; it overstates individual merit and hard work by obscuring from sight the four walls that might have contained the individual within a dark, tight spot to manoeuvre from in the first place, namely and specifically – but not limited to – his/her social environment.

In truth, the failures of an individual might have more to do with his position in the social structure than we’re often willing to admit. In reality, inequality begins at birth. The social environment of the family one is born into, or grows up in, has undeniable biological and psychological consequences. For the poor, a high-stress environment – often dictated by the circumstances of the child’s parents – burdens the child and progresses him towards failure. In the same light, my sociology lecturer, in one of the modules I’ve read, flashed an article in class which states that a typical working-class kid might be exposed to a ratio of 75,000 positive words to 200,000 discouraging ones via the family.

Clearly, meritocracy depoliticises failure; its defined set of values – of which ‘hard work’ is key – negates the first six years of familial socialisation that the child has no control over. However, it doesn’t stop there. The disadvantaged starting point creates a ripple effect that permeates, silently, all other spheres of life, including one’s education. Herein lies meritocracy’s contradiction: the notion of educational affiliation – a system of entitlement and privileges – generally outcasts the working class kid from a stratified education space of ‘elite’ schools. Furthermore, social class subsequently affects one’s social capital later in life i.e. the social connections that would illuminate more future opportunities.

Having considered the implications of socialisation and the family, it would be of no surprise to learn that the phenomenon of imprisonment speaks of a correlation between social class and crime. In fact, the prison environment – despite its supposed aims of  ‘rehabilitation’ – paints a clearer picture of how criminals are produced and inequality is reproduced. Sociologist Erving Goffman discusses how such deliberate manipulation of an environment (for ‘resocialisation’ goals) manifests as a ‘total institution’; locked doors and high walls slowly strips the individual self of its connections to the outside world to the point where the self is given up to be defined by the social arrangements within the four walls. Gradually, as the individual socialises with other criminals while being treated as one physically, energetically and through words, dehumanisation occurs. While the individual might not have been institutionalised before, the norms and imperatives of the modern prison system culminate to ensure that the individual knows without a shadow of a doubt what his master identity is: a criminal.

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Source: Unsplash

Nourishment by the ‘foreign tongue’ of our soil

It is clear that marginalised communities and the less privileged are deeply impacted by their inextricable ties with their social environments. Are we – no matter our social position – any less different? While we might not see the drastic implications of having been confined to a single ‘total environment’, there are milder but sure ways that the environment alters our state, and by extension, the condition of humanity.

Perhaps, albeit strange, I shall illustrate the point of subtle communication through a local event which I had attended in part. It was a session of exchange of poetry and language, with music and dance that seeks to connect locals culturally with migrant workers, named ‘Migrant Poetry Evening’.

The poetry readings were communicated in their original tongue by the authors with eager intonations that sounded like bright colors of a foreign culture (which I believe involved Bengali, Tamil and other languages). Apart from the first reading in English, I could not understand a word that was uttered. Despite the lack of verbal translation, I lingered on with a thought at the back of my mind. Language contains energy floating around the psyche that has been retrieved by our ancestors, those who have come before us, as mentioned by Shakespeare and Robert Bly in his book ‘A Little Book on the Human Shadow’. Perhaps, the vibrations communicated went beyond sounds alone. In simplified terms, I wanted to tap into the ‘realm of poetry’, and just to go into a more inspired place than I was before moody and depressed.

I did not stay beyond the hour mark, but I left the place with my subtle depression lifted, and my state grew calmer just listening to the foreign language of poetry. Yet, truly, our immediate environment has been speaking to us in a ‘foreign tongue’ all along – a language we do not understand (or even hear) – and sending vibrations that travel into our unconscious, that alter and constantly programme and reprogramme our state.

What has this to do with becoming an environmentalist? As the principle of environment-society co-production suggests, we are interlinked, not merely with one another through social ties, but in an inextricable manner with the environment that we hold a power to construct, individually and collectively. We should thus ask the question: How might we become produced, if we were to live amongst a humanity that does not care about the Earth and suffering alike, in a deteriorating physical climate? What would happen to our state and the condition of humanity?

To become an environmentalist is to be concerned with the condition of our Earthly soil, through which we might anchor our roots deep down and seep nourishment from. I believe it is to become more human in a place we could call home, and to become more connected to one another, that is all we have, and through which to be connected with our fundamental values.