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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Making the Most of Disruptions

By Ooi Kee Beng, for The Edge Malaysia, 2 December 2019.

The atypical ambition to make human development sustainable would not have come about in our time if not for the pervasive sense we all feel that human insatiability has gone too far. Human interference — or disruption, to use a fashionable word — with the processes of recovery and resilience of the Earth’s ecosystem as a whole, has been happening fast and furious over the last 200 years.

The crossing of the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian oceans in the late 15th century heralded an era of tumultuous clashes of civilisations as peoples and systems not meant to meet in any immediate fashion were brought together — like the two ends of a sheet of paper folded together, or like the two poles of a magnet curved to touch.

The exchange of goods that followed was more piracy than trade, the meeting of governments more conquest than diplomacy, and the movement of peoples more enslavement than exploration. The forces unleashed by these painful meetings of humans from different ends of the Earth would begin the destruction of civilisations, and about 100 years ago, we saw the last of these ancient civilisations crash to the ground. By the middle of the 20th century, global politics and economics had settled into a struggle between two poles of power, each propelled by its own ideology. After 1990, a unipolar world arose. Today, we seem to be entering into a world with multiple poles but this time, these are fully cognisant of the workings of each other, and more given to convergence than to divergence.

This fateful fusion of humanity is what we call globalisation. Getting here, humanity had pushed its capacity to unravel the mysteries of Mother Nature and to harness once-unimaginable sources of energy for its indiscriminate purposes, and forced a gathering of all humanity at the feet of overwhelming modes of production and of consumption unthinkable to anyone even a generation ago.

The means for creating this One-World, we must now admit, have also been highly destructive for Mother Nature. Species disappear today at a pace faster than we care to imagine, and the ecosystem within which humans can best survive is being destabilised by the processes sustaining modern human life.

Air and water; coasts and continents; rivers and oceans; fowl and fish — there is nothing on Earth today whose processes of rejuvenation are not badly disrupted.

As is their wont, humans talk most urgently about what is most glaringly missing. And it was just when the apparently unipolar world reached its apex that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were formulated, and by the United Nations, no less.

The question we need to ask is, can the modes of thought and of production, which must bear responsibility for destabilising Mother Nature’s recycling processes as much as they take credit for our heightened productivity and the development of human knowledge, be relied on to take us out of this global crisis?

Ensuring sustainability without revising our modes of production and consumption, without reinforcing our sense of agency and urgency, and without re-educating our young and ourselves seems rather superficial and disingenuous an undertaking. It certainly underestimates the problems we are facing.

To conserve the Earth and to keep it fit for life, human or otherwise, is not a job for conservatives.

To be sure, the 17 SDGs are meant to be inclusive, and therefore holistic in approach. The first step being collectively taken in achieving these goals is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This simplifies the list to three goals (basically Goals 1, 10 and 13) — the ending of poverty, minimising inequalities and combating climate change.

In essence, most of the others goals sort easily under the trio, and of course, in reaching for these goals, “Goal 17: Partnerships”, is achievable by default. What this last goal seeks is the coming together of “governments, civil society, scientists, academia and the private sector”, to quote the UN. But in wanting these groups to come together, however, one must also think of their present proficiency and conviction, or the lack thereof.

At the provincial or local level, instigators of the SDGs need to consider the amount of convincing, the training and the educating that is required for major actors to go beyond mere formalism in their participation. As one would expect with most huge systemic undertakings where the danger is not

apparent and immediate, the commitment tends to be very low, often to the point of being counter productive. Be that as it may, partnerships across society offer the best bet we have in attaining a sustainable balance between economic growth and environmental liveability.

The SDGs’ viability as a collection of policy directions, to my mind, depends strongly on SDG 17. This is the major artery along which the impulses for cultural changes in favour of sustainability flow, and on which the success of the whole scheme will depend.

The processes of industrialisation and globalisation which led us to this critical period in human history also created populations that are generally not proactive enough or possessed of sufficient agency and curiosity to facilitate change without first being offered a general adoption of concepts that encourage mass action towards sustainability, and that policymakers will implement.

The SDGs are a valiant effort in providing that set of ideas and impulses. But for these concepts to come alive, much work has to be done to operationalise and concretise them in local contexts. The localising of what are naturally general aspirations more often understood as political grandstanding than a roadmap to survival is vital, and requires socio-anthropological factors to be considered.

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.

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