Critiquing Sustainababble: Yale-NUS College’s SEAL Programme

By Melissa Choi (16S06B) and Qiu Kexin (16A13A)

Environmental Studies once carried a reputation for being one of the world’s most depressing disciplines. So much so in fact, that a Yale-NUS professor coined a phenomenon within the field, dubbed the Trinity of Despair, to describe the vicious cycle of (fallacious – but more on that later) pessimism that environmentalists commonly find themselves embroiled in.

As the theory goes, those trapped in this Trinity inevitably succumb to the belief that change is possible only if three rather impossible conditions are fulfilled, due to a fundamental faith that humans are “only out for themselves”.

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Adapted from: https://michaelmaniates.com/home/

This might not be surprising: environmental activism seems to be full of nothing if not roadblocks. According to common perception, wars between environmental justice and human selfishness have been waged since time immemorial, with the former losing by a landslide to oil spills, environmental exploitation, and human apathy. Naturally, one would think, if the perception in the ‘safe’ academic space of environmental studies is already this way, would reality not be far more dreary?

“Not true,” Tan Weiliang, a Yale-NUS College student, would say. Growing up, he was as much a victim of Singapore’s predominant apathy about environmentalism as any other child his age. “In primary school, I thought environmentalism simply meant promoting the 3Rs,” he demurred when asked for his view on environmental advocacy. After entering Yale-NUS College, however, his perception was irrevocably transformed.

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From left to right: SEAL Organisers Heng Jia Min, Neo Xiayun, and Toh Hui Ran

In 2016, a group of students from the I’dECO, Yale-NUS College’s student environmental group, collaborated to organise the Singapore Environmental Action & Leadership Programme (SEAL). It was a three-day programme for secondary school and pre-tertiary students, involving a whole range of activities from lectures to presentations, and field visits to environmental NGOs.

Beyond its slightly prosaic name, SEAL was anything but ordinary. From the start, it aimed to defamiliarise the term ‘sustainability’, which in recent years, has been abused by various institutions to the point of meaninglessness. It is doubtful whether entrenching ‘sustainability’ more deeply in our lingual consciousness is triggering proportionate change.  In fact, the phenomenon of ‘sustainababble’ may be having the opposite effect: Singaporeans are becoming more desensitised to the urgency of sustainability.

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In light of this problem, SEAL had a pertinent purpose: it taught us about environmental advocacy and leadership in the modern context. In this way, it narrowed the gulf between our ingrained apathy and the vast world of environmental activism. To give an analogy, the experience was like hiking through the treacherous forest of critiquing environmental issues: SEAL was a sagely guide that taught us essential strategies for interpreting environmental problems and making our way out alive.

Empowerment has to start with understanding, and understanding means creating accessible information. One reason why Singaporeans may be apathetic is because they are unable to decode hopelessly complex environmental issues, and thus to engage with them. SEAL begun by tackling this problem of insufficient understanding with interactive ‘lectures’ on core Environmental Studies concepts. The lectures introduced new and complex material in an accessible manner; facilitators started us off on the relatively simple concept of ‘power’, followed by more academic but still pertinent lectures on systems-thinking and the definition of sustainability.

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In truth, sustainability eludes precise definition. Some institutions, like the government, prefer a general definition, due to the strengths of a concept that can be applied flexibly. Others, like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, still demand concrete criteria that must be fulfilled before something can be labelled ‘sustainable’, but problems arise when they may conflict with other kinds of sustainability. Our facilitators sparked thought-provoking reflection by introducing us to Prugh and Assadourian’s definition, followed by Rumi Shammin’s take.

As much as SEAL provided us with a breadth of information, it also invited us to dive deeper.  Probing beneath the surface of environmental issues was one of the programme’s central aims. The key here was to progress beyond the cliché, unnuanced narratives that were already second nature to us: that ‘green’ initiatives were homogeneously good, but painstakingly difficult to implement for international organisations and governments.

Refreshingly, SEAL walked the talk with us, guiding us on what questions we could ask to provoke reflection and insight.  During a discussion about the usefulness of the ecological footprint, we breezed cheerfully through an exercise comparing the ecological footprints of an average Singaporean’s consumption in different countries – but began to notice that something wasn’t right.

It soon hit us that the ecological footprint was far too localised, and also had unsettling implications for environmental justice. In North American countries, up to 30% of the average person’s footprint could constitute unchangeable “Government-run” services, while this percentage would dwindle to 5% in developing nations like India (a result of lower government budget surpluses). A logical conclusion? North American counterparts were only able to reduce their footprint to a smaller extent than their Indian peers, even if both made the exact same changes to their consumption patterns. From a utilitarian standpoint, the onus then was on the people of India to reduce their footprint, since they could reduce their footprint to a greater extent.

As an astute observer pointed out, this could have a problematic implication: that North Americans could be excused of responsibility in conserving the environment because of their threshold in reducing carbon emissions. To many of us who had taken the carbon footprint for granted, this revelation was an epiphany: how long had we remained blind to the deeper nuances surrounding environmental movements, because we never went on to question the implications behind them?

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(from top left, in clockwise order) What you can expect to do at the four NGOs: Quan Fa Organic Farm, Ground-Up Initiative, Food Bank Singapore, and Waterways Watch Society

This was followed by field visits to local NGOs, which awakened our awareness to the nuances in the environmental advocacy efforts around us. At both Quan Fa Organic Farm and Ground-Up Initiative, their uncertain land-leases undermined their ability to promote their goals of organic farming and restoring the human-nature connection. At Food Bank, we were mortified upon discovering the amount of food waste generated because of strict regulations on food consumption periods, but at the same time, understood the rationale behind such a policy.

At Waterways Watch Society, we were shocked by how even an organisation that seemed well-endowed in terms of resources could struggle because of a lack of manpower and interest in the job of ‘picking up rubbish from Singapore’s rivers’ (which severely understates the contribution they make to Singapore’s waterways). It seemed, after a seminal introduction that opened up a flood of mental possibilities, no occasion was mundane enough to go unquestioned by us.

Sealing Up the Three Days

These experiences have led us to conclude that, ultimately, SEAL was about shifting our attitudes so we would intrinsically be more critical of and adept at navigating complex environmental problems.

Rather than dumping swathes of alarmist information about the urgency of conservation, SEAL was much more graceful in its bottom-up approach. Sessions allowed participants to take charge of our own learning process by prompting questions from us such as “Why?” “How?” and “Does it have to be this way…?”. As a result, our takeaways were much more intimate and impactful — one has more ownership over what one has generated on one’s own, after all.

Of course, credit goes to the students within the organising team, for what distinguished SEAL was the very fact that it was created by students, for students. Everyone  in the organising team was united by a passion for Environmental Studies and its insights, and channelled this into their efforts to impart their knowledge to other youths.seal6.png

At the end of the day, SEAL never promised to give us answers to the environmental ills plaguing our world. (In fact, facilitators stressed that in Environmental Studies, a concept like ‘the answer’ may not necessarily apply since most environmental problems are wicked problems.) But if their goal was to empower us, they certainly succeeded.

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Post-SEAL, the challenge lay in translating what we learned during the 3-day programme into the real world. Some of us embarked on post-programme projects, like Lens On, a blog showcasing sustainable solutions in a concise, photojournalistic-style, or #ImEdible, a project which aims to reduce food wastage in Singapore.

Professor  Michael Maniates originally conceptualised the stages of resignation that environmentalists go through into the Trinity of Despair in order to question, rather than prove, whether despair is inevitable. Rather than remaining entrained in powerlessness, it is worthwhile to question whether this is true, and realise that human behaviour is contextual. In doing so, one can reexamine new prospects for larger change rather than remaining entrained in powerlessness. Perhaps it is time that Singaporeans do the same too.

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SEAL’s Participants and Facilitators

I’dECO will be holding their third iteration of SEAL at Yale-NUS College in May/June this year. Sign-ups open April 1st. Do also visit their Facebook page for more news about environmental advocacy in Singapore, or to show their youth leaders some deserved appreciation for their hard work!

2016 SEAL Programme Organising Team

Toh Hui Ran, Tan Weiliang, Neo Xiaoyun, Seow Yongzhi, Koh Xun Quan, Marissa Foo, Huang Yuming,  Heng Jia Min

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