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Articles, Commentaries, Economics, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Sustainable Development – There is no other choice

By OOI KEE BENG [Editorial in Penang Monthly, December 2012]

logo_pmI just returned from Japan, and like every other visitor, I was struck by how clean the place is.

To be sure, there are lots of spotless countries and cities around. Singapore is known for its clinical cleanliness, as we know. Hong Kong’s inner city is sparklingly polished. But what was impressive above and beyond the simple lack of litterbugs in Japan – and here I mean mainly Tokyo and Kyoto – is the relative absence of cleaners.

What this means is that individual Japanese don’t litter, not because Big Brother is watching like in Singapore or Hong Kong. No doubt there is social pressure on them to avoid littering; but that pressure is largely internalized. This is Confucianism functioning at its best.

This leads me to think of the discussion carried out so often in thismagazine about Sustainability, be this in City Development as often advocated by our own columnist DrGoh Ban Lee, or Economic Development in general, as promoted by the world’s best-known economist Jeffrey Sachs,profiled in this issue.

The questions to ask, first of all, are, Where do litterbugs come from?; and in extension, Why does the greatest polluter of all times, Modern Man, not seem able to take responsibility for his own rubbish? Why is he so unconscious of the damage he does to his own environment?

Let me venture an answer based on how Malaysians behave. Most Malaysians are house-proud. And yet they can gladly litter once outside the confines of their abode. Strange behaviour indeed.

Modern people continue to be unconscious that Mother Nature is finite. When humans were few and Nature therefore by comparison interminably big in time and space, we could afford to litter. Whatever got thrown back into Nature, be this used water, rotting food, polluting smoke, broken items, rubbish in general, would be broken down, absorbed and recycled naturally. Most of what we took from Nature and threw back did not disrupt Nature’s cycles irreparably.

Seriously, if the world were flat, and stretched endlessly in all directions, humans could just keep moving and leave their rubbish behind them, like our hunter-gatherer forefathers did; and sustainability would be as naturally given process.

But alas, not only is the world round – meaning painfully finite – it recycles well only if not exploited extensively and too quickly.

Human success has led us to behave like a blind virus. Unconscious that it is trapped on a rock in space, it ploughs through every bit of resource it can find on the finite Earth. The cyclical processes of the Earth simply cannot keep up.

Humans – the billions of us – can no longer behave as if we are insignificant in numbers and as if Nature is infinite and not damageable. Given where we now are as a species, we have to leave our hunter-gatherer mentality behind.

We cannot live as if the health of Mother Earth is not our concern. We are our planet’s sole guardian.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


One thought on “Sustainable Development – There is no other choice

  1. I like it when folks get together and share
    opinions. Great blog, continue the good work!

    Posted by tweets hotels & journey | June 22, 2013, 5:03 am

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