It’s World Environment Day today. According to the UN, this year, it’s “Time for Nature”. As the world shifts and responds to humanity’s actions in the Anthropocene, making time for nature seems more needed now than ever. For Singapore, the world-famous Garden City, nature is all around us. But do we have any idea how deeply interconnected we really are to nature?
From “Garden City” to “City in a Garden”
At first glance, “Time for Nature” would seem to be the perfect theme for World Environment Day in Singapore. On 12 May 1967, The Straits Times announced, for the very first time, Singapore’s ambition to turn into “a beautiful garden city with flowers and trees, without waste and as neat and orderly as possible”. Today, with green buildings abound, awe-inspiring indoor forests in Gardens by the Bay and Jewel Changi, and trees practically everywhere you turn, Singapore has succeeded in realising its vision. Nature is all around us.
But this belies a few not-so-desirable truths. Even as early as 2014, the WWF’s Living Planet Report found that Singapore has the seventh-largest ecological footprint (a measure of the population’s demands on natural resources) in the world. In its rapid development, Singapore has “lost an incredible amount of its rich biodiversity”, according to local environmental initiative Greenwatch. It is unsurprising that the plan to make Singapore a “Garden City” was—more fittingly, perhaps—changed to “City in a Garden”.
Changi Wins Big at #Skytrax’s 2020 World Airport Awards.
— DestinAsian Magazine (@DestinAsian_Mag) May 12, 2020
The dawn of a human-influenced age
Singapore’s trajectory shouldn’t be surprising. We live in the “Anthropocene” epoch: so declared by an expert group in 2016. They believed that humanity’s impact on the planet was now so profound that an entirely new geological epoch needed to be declared. This would acknowledge, The Guardian writes, “striking acceleration since the mid-20th century of carbon dioxide emissions and sea level rise, the global mass extinction of species, and the transformation of land by deforestation and development”.
We haven’t yet officially accepted the term, but the fact that it’s being debated is indication enough of the changing relationship between humans and nature on a global level. And living in cities like Singapore, humans are more and more estranged from nature. Despite nature being around us, it’s obvious that Singapore is highly urbanised. And the process of—and the people behind—development is largely hidden. How many of us have even fathomed how our high-rise buildings came to be? How the land we’re standing on was built?
The “extinction of experience”
With greater urbanisation comes greater biodiversity loss. Perhaps it is not as visible in Singapore, but certainly, economic development in the city-state has been prioritised over biodiversity protection. Worryingly, this biological impoverishment has real effects on conservation. The “shifting baseline” syndrome, also known as environmental generational amnesia, puts a name to the phenomenon that the environment children encounter becomes a baseline against which environmental degradation is measured when these children grow older. It can be simplified to this: the less nature you experience when you’re a child, the less nature you’ll come to expect.
This, along with other factors, led American lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle to term the “extinction of experience”. What happens when more and more generations become isolated from nature? Will we one day no longer want to invest in the protection of nature?
An invitation to reconnect
“Time for Nature” has, indeed, never been more relevant. We must reconnect with nature now. But what do we really know about nature? For many of us who dwell in urban Singapore—myself included—our experiences “of nature” are exactly the problem. Reduced to green parks and green buildings and the occasional trip to neighbouring Pulau Ubin, “nature” becomes something we abstract from ourselves. The truth is, we are all intimately (inter)connected to nature.
So how do we reconnect? Thankfully, we don’t have to look too far. Nature is embedded in everything we experience. All we need to do is think deeper, and see with new eyes. A new locally-published anthology, lovingly and fittingly titled Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene, filled with fresh, young voices, is the invitation to reconnect I didn’t know I needed. From one city-dwelling human (me) to another (you), my advice is to pick up a copy and experience it for yourself. Here’s a preview of what you can expect.
Seeing with new eyes
When we eat chilli crabs, it would never occur to us to think about the processes behind getting the crabs to our plates. And no, I’m not talking just about the animal cruelty—that’s only a small piece of the puzzle. Did you know that the Scylla serrata, the spieces of crab that becomes chilli crabs, practices cannibalism? This actually posed a problem to seafood suppliers, who wanted to figure out how best to increase production figures.
When we look around the city-state, do we think about the sand that exists everywhere in Singapore, albeit invisibly? Where does the sand, that plays a crucial role in Singapore’s reclamation projects, come from? How is “our” sand connected to Cambodian activists protesting ecological destruction along their rivers? And speaking of reclamation: have you ever thought about how Semakau Landfill came to be?
More than the sand required to build it, did you know that Pulau Seking, which joined with Pulau Semakau to constitute Singapore’s (in)famous landfill was the last Southern island where indigenous islanders lived as they did in pre-colonial Singapore? Where have they gone? Are their histories preserved?
Not many who read this, I suspect, will know of the Golden Age of Malay Cinema in Singapore’s history. What do popular Malay horror films have to do with kampung life, modernity and the petro-chemical industry? And on that note, you may know that the Singapore Story is connected to fossil fuels. That Singapore’s Jurong Island is perhaps one of the city-state’s best-kept secret (not so much now) to its continued economic success. And maybe you think there’s no way out, but did you know that key parts of our economy have been replaced before? That we had a thriving garment industry that today only accounts for 0.1% of Singapore’s manufacturing output? Change has happened before, and it can happen again.
Hope must be practised
Thinking about nature and changing the way children think about nature is key towards protecting nature. As of today, Singapore’s education system is not sufficiently preparing children to thrive in the Anthropocene. But if we rebalance the values within the education system, we can better prepare them. And perhaps this is as important as any adaptation policy we enact.
A friend once reminded me that hope must be practised, and I’ve kept these words close to my heart since he spoke them. (Coincidentally, that same friend wrote the concluding chapter to this anthology. It’s, as you would expect, fittingly titled “Another Garden City is Possible: A Plan for a Post-Carbon Singapore”.) To protect nature, we must be able to envision better collective futures. But to do so, we must first reconnect with nature, an ability many of us have lost. This anthology, edited by Dr Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, is a wonderful way to reconnect. And what better time than now, when we’re stuck at home still and not quite yet allowed to go outside freely?
Take it from me: someone who doesn’t read books frequently, someone who isn’t head-over-heels for nature (not all activists are), and someone who thought she knew all she had to know about Singapore’s relationship with nature. Every chapter had something to offer, something new I didn’t know before. And somewhere between the pain, frustration, disappointment, anger and despair, as Dr Schneider-Mayerson writes in the anthology’s Introduction, there is wonder, beauty and solidarity. I finished the anthology with entirely new perspectives, rewritten truths and a renewed sense of hope. And if these aren’t reasons enough, hear from the editor himself.
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"Another Garden City is possible. In this age of climate crisis, we owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to build it." 🌳 Every preorder of Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene comes with an immediately accessible digital copy, so you can start reading ASAP while waiting for the physical book to arrive! This can be read on phones, tablets or any compatible ereader you may have. 📖 Click through the link in our bio to get your copy. 🆙
An interview with Dr Matthew Schneider-Mayerson
You mentioned in the anthology’s introduction that the way we see “the environment” as something “out there” and something we “save” is “outdated”. Could you elaborate on what you imagine the/an alternative could be? (And on that note, what do you think about the way the UN conceptualises “the environment” and “nature” on this year’s World Environment Day, that’s themed “Time For Nature”?)
We’ve developed this strange idea that “the environment” and “nature” are separate from humans and our daily lives. In this way of thinking, “the environment” becomes something we can choose to care about on a Saturday, or on World Environment Day, if we feel like it. Given that literally everything about our lives is dependent upon a stable climate and functioning ecosystems, given that we are animals and that half of the cells in our bodies are not human, given a thousand other basic facts about the world we inhabit, it’s a patently ridiculous idea. It’s the product of a remarkable and anomalous period in human history—the Anthropocene, the twentieth century, the era of fossil fuels, however you want to define it—in which this idea could not only be taken seriously but could become dominant, could in fact become common sense.
The main problem is what we’re actually doing, of course, but the very terms we use and fall back on—nature, the environment, wilderness—tend to reflect and reinforce this idea of the nonhuman world as something that’s separate from us. That’s part of the problem. I tend to like the phrase “web of life,” which suggests an appropriate level of vastness, complexity, and interdependency, and doesn’t make me sound like too much of a hippie when I say it out loud. But there are many other terms which people should learn about, some of them described in my previous book, An Ecotopian Lexicon. Sila, pa theuan, Pachamama, et cetera. Many are from indigenous languages and cultures. Learning them helps us appreciate that other ways of seeing, living in, and valuing the world are not only possible, but were practiced for centuries if not millennia by people living right where we stand today, and are still in existence.
In the introduction, you talked briefly about Singapore being a place in “transition”. Could you elaborate more on what you meant?
If you read about the history of this island, you find that it has frequently been characterized by mobility and change, in both ecological and human terms. And that’s definitely true today, in which every place on Earth is in transition, for better or worse. We’re speaking at a moment of historical bifurcation, in which radically different futures stretch out before us. Unimaginably bad outcomes are not only possible but plausible. Will Singapore rise to the challenge, as it did in the post-independence years of nation building? Will it pioneer a model of a truly sustainable, multispecies metropolis by using its nimbleness to refashion itself in response to changing circumstances? Or will it become a barely-habitable fortress in a region besieged by climate chaos and displacement? Both futures are possible, and many more. It’s our actions today, in Singapore and around the world, that will determine which way we go.
Referring to the title of the introduction, why is it so important so see Singapore with “New Eyes”? Who should we be asking to see Singapore with these “New Eyes”, and how do we invite them to do so?
We come to see and understand the world through familiar frames—think of them as a pair of contact lenses you have on for so long that you completely forget you’re wearing them. These frames are passed down to us and enforced, intentionally or unintentionally, by our education, our cultural narratives, the media we consume, our social media timelines, our family, our friends, and of course the economic and geopolitical systems we live within. But sometimes it turns out that they’re leading us all on a path to ruin. That’s where we stand today: on the edge of a cliff. At a moment in which learning to see with new eyes—which really means ancient eyes—is necessary if we want to maintain a stable planet.
We hope this book will be enjoyable and meaningful for committed environmentalists in Singapore, but they aren’t the main people that need to read it. We wrote and edited the book so that it might be accessible, engaging, and informative to everyone who reads, from teenagers to grandparents. There is no shortage of great books on climate change and others environmental issues, of course. But there are none that take a distinctly Singapore-based perspective on these issues. We’re hoping this book might provide an opportunity for Singaporeans to have some important conversations about some unspeakably urgent issues, issues that are, sadly, all too easy to ignore in the normal course of our daily lives. If you’ve been trying to find a way to share your concerns and feelings with your family, friends, or co-workers, perhaps an Eating Chilli Crab book club will be a way to do so.
This anthology is a collection of stories, and stories within stories. Why is storytelling (about the environment, and more broadly speaking too) important in Singapore?
Scholars and scientists agree that data isn’t enough. We humans are narrative junkies. Whether it’s telling stories around a fire or watching Netflix, we love stories, and we need stories. Stories are how we make sense of the world and situate ourselves within it, as individuals, communities, and nations. Stories about what’s happening, who we are, what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. About the way the world is and the way that it can or should be. About what’s necessary, what’s important, and what doesn’t really matter. New stories—shared by enough people—can have a truly transformative impact. New stories aren’t silver bullets or magical invocations, but they’re a necessary and important part of a successful response to climate change and the other challenges we face.
And speaking of stories: you chose to centre the voices of “authors born between 1993 and 1998”, which I understand was a decision made because the youth are the ones whose lives will be inevitably shaped by the climate crisis. Whose voices do you think we should centre moving forward and why?
For me there is an ethical imperative to include and centre the perspectives of those who are most impacted. One of the many injustices of climate change and other socio-ecological problems is an asymmetry between those who have done the most to cause them, who have the greatest ability to take action, on one side; and those who are suffering and will suffer the most in the future, on the other. Social scientists have shown that this divide is there in terms of nationality, in terms of class, in terms of race or ethnicity, in terms of gender, but also in terms of age. In most countries, decisions tend to be made by older generations. There are some good reasons for that, of course—as a professor, I believe that accumulated knowledge and experience can be extremely valuable. But in many places we’re seeing that younger generations are much more concerned about climate change than older generations. That’s because young people understand that some changes are not just catastrophic. They’re irreversible. Many young people are recognizing that if we don’t act immediately, they will lose the opportunity to enjoy the decent future that they were promised. More young people seem to understand the scale of what’s happening, in a way that seems to be more difficult for people my age and older. It’s important to diverse voices, perspectives, and interests be part of the discussions and decisions that are shaping our collective futures.
That said, I think readers will find that the book is unique, illuminating, and engaging regardless of the authors’ ages. Each of the authors did a great deal of work—field research, digging through archives, and more—to ensure that they can speak in ways that are authoritative and backed up by science and scholarship. Each of the essays contains endnotes so that readers can consult these sources on their own, and each of them went through a process of anonymous peer review by experts in these fields.
Finally, what are some—because there are many—reasons why you think this anthology is particularly relevant now? And aside from reading this anthology (and starting their own book club), what do you hope readers do? What steps do you hope they take?
As the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is now. Some people may think that it’s too late to act on climate change, or that they’ll always be safe in Singapore. Neither is true. Earth systems are nonlinear. Every tenth of a degree of warming will have dramatic consequences—for humans, for the millions of nonhuman species that we share this planet with, and for Singapore, a small island nation in an increasingly fragile and unstable world. So the time to learn and act is now. As to what steps we hope people will take, there are numerous suggestions in the book, and there are lists out there on the Internet that aren’t hard to find. People don’t need to reinvent the wheel. But what should be clear at this point in time is that there’s very little we can do as individuals. These are transboundary, cumulative and collective problems, and effective responses must occur at the same scale. We can all play an important part in that, but we won’t make a difference if we don’t act together.
Preorder a copy of Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene at bit.ly/eatingchillicrab from now till 26 June. As part of the preorder, readers will receive the following bonuses:
- A digital ebook copy of Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene accessible immediately while you wait for the paperback copy to be delivered.
- A bonus essay, “Some Islands Will Rise: Singapore in the Anthropocene” by editor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson.
- A digital wallpaper of the book’s cover, illustrated by Tiffany Lovage.