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In Many Minds about Sustainability

By Ooi Kee Beng

One would think that the need for sustainability in all the major processes in human life today would not be controversial. And generally, it is not. Hardly any policy maker constructs policies without exhibiting his or her cognizance of it.

No ocean liner can change course immediately, and that would seem to be the case where Spaceship Earth is concerned. We continue to hope that the slight adjustments we read about everyday will suffice to slow Climate Change enough for us to adapt earlier rather than later.

A bit of sincere action here, a bit of sincere action there… and together, God willing, and if Santa Claus exists, perhaps we will avoid a Final Crisis where fresh air and clean water become luxuries the way quietude and swimmable seas were once taken for granted.

My fear is that most of us are giving up on our ability to influence Climate Change, and the term sustainability is but a phrase we use, like God willing, or like the way Malaysians used to poster the term Warisan 2020. To be sure, stopping Climate Change is really no longer an option.

There was certainly more optimism and activism in the air before Covid-19 breezed in anno 2020; before the US woke up to the fact that it can be challenged as sole hegemon and that it does not like that at all; and before a new European war reconfigured the future scenarios of globalized living.

But, to get to the heart of the matter, is the term ‘sustainability’ comprehensible universally? Or more to the point, how differently do individuals living in different economic realities understand such a call? And are these various understandings mutually communicable?

No doubt, this may be like opening the proverbial can of worms, but keeping things in cans is merely a way to avoid a problem anyway. So let me take the lid off with a discussion on basic forms of production. The economic thinking involved in making a living creates a mindset suited to it, and therefore, ‘sustainability’ may make sense, if it does make sense at all, only in ways that are too limited for what we generally hope a commitment to sustainable development would achieve.

What makes sustainability painfully salient is when, for each of these economic realities, the threat of future lack appears, real and undeniable. Crisis heightens consciousness about sustainability.

Seasonal Unsustainability

Now, let us take the economic activity we call ‘hunting and gathering’. This is basically appropriation of what Nature possesses or generates as a cyclical matter of course. Whatever gets caught or gathered becomes a product. I would in fact expand the term to include ‘robbing’, which is the appropriation of things one did not help produce; ‘hunted’ and ‘gathered’ from another human, and not from Nature. So, the ‘value-adding’ is in the very appropriation of a ready good.

When unsustainability looms for the hunter, gatherer or robber, it is largely seasonal. He just has to be patient and wait for the cyclical offerings of goods to return. And if the cyclical turns are too large, he has to be mobile. He moves in search of richer terrains, fertile seas or unsuspecting and richer human settlements. He has no demand problems, only supply problems. He is the end-user.

For the agriculturalist, who ploughs and engineers the land, plants and nurtures the crops, and adapts to the weather, unsustainability is unpredictability—of the weather, of the arrival of pests, and of invaders or robbers.

But his problems are more than that, of course. He needs defence, social order and knowledge relevant to his industry, for which he pays through taxes and other collective mechanisms; he has to rely on the one hand on a pre-production supply chain for seeds, water and labour, and on the other, on the reliability of the market, of buyers and middlemen, and accessibility to secure storage of his produce. Competitors, shysters and policymakers negotiate the economic framework he has to function in.

Where manufactures are concerned, the complexities of production mount. Supply chains, the fashionable term today, must remain reliable, but the more segments there are in the chain, the more there is which can go wrong. Unsustainability for the industrialists is similar to the case of the agriculturalist. He needs his supply of clean water, he needs reliable labour, he needs knowledge of his industry’s paths of development.

Longer-term challenges to the sustainability of both the agriculturalist and the industrialist lie in the polluting and destructive effects of their production systems. With them, the Anthropocene period appears.

What of the services sector, the blue- and white-collar world? These are the salaried crowd, which in effect are cogs in the wheel. What concerns them is that the wheel keeps rolling. Sustainability to them may not seem a personal concern or responsibility, being merely cogs in a system too big for them to pretend any control over. To them, sustainability may then be about middle-class stability and generational social mobility; and unsustainability would essentially be an economic phenomenon.

What of the capital owners and the financial elite? When do they sense unsustainability? As we know, even depressions can be seen as opportunities in capitalism, and even disruptions are also a clarion call for new fortunes to be.

It is a commonly-held conviction that any measure towards sustainability has somehow to be monetizable to be realizable. Since economically-generated mindsets appear anathematic to balance, circularity and sustainability, the hope that anthropogenic excesses can be reversed will have to lie with other human sensibilities, like our love of Nature, and the care we have for coming generations of beloved descendants. A glib conclusion, no doubt. A more honest one, also given how population growth undermines most attempts at reducing environmental damage, is that there is really no force large enough to reverse the slide into a world not really made for human existence.

But such a conclusion, however realistic, is correct only because it neglects how strongly humans at the individual level in the final analysis need to transform any adverse situation to fit their needs.

Dato Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (2016). Personal webpage: wikibeng.com.


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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