Soul Topics

Behind Economics-based Climate Change Mitigation Approaches: Contesting Instrumentalist Environmental Valuations

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.

Katabasis | Walking With Nature
Figure 1: Katabasis and ‘walking with nature’ [Source:

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


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.


Kauffman, G. (2016). Are Celebrities Helping or Hurting the Climate Change Conversation? The Christian Science Monitor. Available at: [Accessed April 10, 2019].


McNamara, K.E. & Gibson, C. (2009). ‘We do not want to leave our land’: Pacific ambassadors at the United Nations resist the category of ‘climate refugees’. Geoforum, 40, 475-483.


Mead, L. (2018). IPCC Special Report: Limiting Global Warming to 1.5°C Will Require “Unprecedented” Transitions. SDG Knowledge Hub. Available at: [Accessed April 10, 2019].


Mock, A. (2019). Climate Change Mitigation in Singapore: Lessons From an Urbanized Island Nation. Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung South East Asia. Available at: [Accessed April 10, 2019].


Neo, H. (2007). Challenging the developmental state: Nature conservation in Singapore. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 48(2), 186-199.


Neo, H. (2010). The Potential of Large-Scale Urban Waste Recycling: A Case Study of the National Recycling Programme in Singapore. Society and Natural Resources, 23(9), 872-887.


Okereke, Chukwumerije. (2010). Climate Justice and the International Regime. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1(3), 462-474.


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)



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: [Accessed April 5, 2019].

Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources. (2018). Resources Climate Action SG. Available at: [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.



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.

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.



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: [Accessed February 25, 2019].


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