Life together

collective intelligence, hand signals, and a Green Dot in a sea of grey

When I think about whom I’d want to spend the rest of my life with, it’s no longer the lifetime of “till death do us part”. It’s the next 4-9 years. I figure that, whomever I get through that with, we’ll have the right mix of non-violent communication skills, conflict management, transdomain problem-solving capacity, and stress tolerance to last together 4eva after.


The last two weeks have been hard-going, so I’ll start with spots of goodness. Emblazoned across the front page of The Straits Times, Home section last week was one of those good bits: a group of 20-25 year olds sitting on the lawn of Hong Lim Park, where the SG Climate Rally will be held next month, 21 September. My dried, caked heart cracked open a little. An interesting turn of events in a time of amassing popular momentum.

While the youth of neighbouring countries mount their version of civil advocacy for the futures they need, civil obedience in Singapore has reigned for the past 30 years. Now, however, the waters are shifting; advocacy for one’s needs is becoming less a struggle of shame and guilt, or going against the grain. This is good when Singapore’s ESG investments are still way behind our neighbour Malaysia’s - it seems we have principles; they have a sign-on code and some familiarity with “using social factors to guide their investments, particularly what they cannot invest in.”

What social factors? Perhaps intimacy, proximity, and connection?

I joined a brilliant group of people equally invested in the climate problem this past Monday, locked in a tiny room in town with several hunks of cheese, wine and good bread, and each other to fend with (for) until we figured out the solution to climate change. Well-fed, but not easy! But my expectations that people would dawdle around the topic were quickly overturned as fellow interlocutors jumped right into it. With some prodding from our fairy godmother Jacqui Hocking.

I won’t go into what we discussed in the whole session, but they sort of chunked into themes of misinformation, connection, and capital redeployment. Have a look below.

Images: Jacqui Hocking, VSS

(Guess which role’s mine?)

This month, I’m preparing a document with a group of people for the National Climate Change Secretariat’s public consultation. It’s got us thinking about how to make collective action truly about the collective, and not how the NCCS seems to have it figured so far. As it stands, the idea that Singapore has 50-100 years to prepare for long-term solutions may be comforting to those who might only be concerned about the next 30 years of life, but it fails to capture the value that a young, motivated, and spirited group of people can contribute. I think it’s an unproductive argument pitched at a retiring demographic group, and it’ll be a pity if Singapore goes that route just as it’s maturing as a nation of many voices.

It’s not just the deadline of 2030 I am existentially concerned with, and I’ll offer a rejoinder to this anxiety in a minute. In 2017, Sara Menker of Gro Intelligence predicted that markets would tip as demand outstrips production capacity in just a decade, by 2027.

That tip occurs as Africa's population overtakes that of India's and China's by 2023, and India gradually becomes a net importer of calories. But the “tipping point” is also a misleading way to think about how we will actually experience systemic change. What we see as a single, predicted point on a chart is in reality, a series of things we need to survive through: minute, qualitative changes in the food, air, water, and toxic matter around us.

Farmers in the US and China are already seeing nutritional changes in the food they produce.

Meanwhile, those huge rainfalls on exposed black dirt wash it to the vales even from the flat ground of our neighborhood. We are losing soil at two to three tons an acre a year. Nature can regenerate the soil at only a half-ton a year. So we are washing our black gold down the river four to six times faster than we can regrow it.

Because we have less soil, the corn and soya beans are starting to show it in lower protein in the kernel or pod. Corn is yielding higher starch content, notes agronomist Dr Rick Cruse of Iowa State. He adds that wheat production in China is falling because of degraded soil wrought by extreme weather and poor stewardship. It follows that overall corn yields, or at least relative value for the most-used crop in the world, will decline.

So, we don’t have 50-100 years, people. And: we should stop talking about our individual roles as if we were nations trapped in Cold War siege mentality with only a loudhailer/PA system to issue directives. Which brings me to my next points (and news).

In world tumults this past two weeks: individualism and networks of actual, collective action. Let’s go with the scary stuff first:

  1. Discussions about the rise of eco-fascism, sparked off by the El Paso shooting in the US. This shooting has had many facets including the role that online forums have played in the normalisation of trigger violence (I mentioned 8chan last issue), but the link to eco-fascism is a rather unexpected one, and it reveals a chilling undercurrent of feeling that will continue to swell. The cracks of disconnection will reveal themselves through blind resentment of the Other, if we don’t find a way to establish mutuality-in-difference.

    OpenDemocracy has an excellent analysis piece on the ecofascist overtones in the El Paso and Christchurch shooter manifestos, and The Guardian ran a piece on the anti-immigration movement and its link to a decidedly American environmental movement (Sierra Club and Paul Erhlich’s Population Bomb). For podcast listeners, the NYTime’s The Daily tracks the early beginnings of staunch institutions that are fronting the American anti-immigration movement in an heiress’ love for the environment.

    This link to ecofascism hits a core nerve with me: as we’re thinking about environmental change and what it takes to motivate collective force, understanding how broad-based movements can sublimate into narrow identity movements maybe helps us see how not to get into one. The history of American environmentalism teaches us that. A popular strand of American environmentalism grew out of the 1980s Cold War and Reagan America. This was a highly passionate environmentalism that celebrated the beauty of the American landscape, as we read in much nature writing that came out of that time, but also a highly nation-focused/patriotic one that disengaged from the socio-environmental destruction America was waging on other nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America at the time.

    While solidly focused on fending off developers’ intrusion on national parks, the result was the alienation of many people who did not enjoy their recreational time in parks (because they could not access them or afford the time to), and the narrowing of environmental identity into one vocalised by white and middle-class bodies. “Nature” as seen by a narrow range of the human scale.

    Book reference: Rob Nixon’s Slow Disaster and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Chapter 8)

    If this interests you, we recently discussed this at Tanah x Bras Basah’s Cultivars Reading Group and will shift into our 4th session, on environmental representation as it links with society, on 19 September. RSVPs welcome: we still have spots!

  2. Now, for something bright: the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan brought many lessons on social technology that became useful in Hong Kong’s later Occupy Central movement (and in the current one), but what’s less known is that the Sunflower Movement was also supported by digital technology. set the stage for vTaiwan to push for digital democracy. Audrey Tang, now Digital Minister in Taiwan and anarchist at heart, talks about setting up infrastructure for open communication and collaborative governance: first during the Sunflower Movement, and how this has then revolutionised Taiwanese governance from the inside-out in a peaceful, effective way that’s brought more of Taiwanese society on board. Digital, open-source tech AND social technologies enable collaborative governance—much of what we need today to face the climate crisis. Listen to the end for where hand signals came from (if you don’t already know!).

    “Bridge-making provides the way to hope… Hope is needed to sustain outrage”

    —Audrey Tang, Digital Minister, on Gov Zero and much more

    With the fires going on in the Brazilian Amazon, I think we have a great deal to be outraged about.

  3. After all that, for some institutional news: A beef ban at Goldsmiths University was announced last week, effective from September. This comes alongside reminders that it’s not the non-meat diet that will save us, but the important balance of soils - for which animal husbandry is also important. Regardless, a beef ban is a good signalling mechanism and makes a huge impact on emissions reduction, so I’m very on board. Regulatory action does a great deal of what individual action can’t always do, and individual knowledge building contributes the flexibility we need to ensure regulations don’t strangle us!

That’s about it for now. It looks like a busy month ahead—hoping to share about things as they come, in the next issue .. in 2 weeks! Teaser for later~

Some things are not to be quelled,

let your circles grow.