Radical approach needed to tackle ‘glocal eco-emergency’

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It is not enough to tinker with policies; we need to move beyond the ‘green economy’ that is based on an unsustainable growth-based capitalist orientation, asserts M Nadarajah.

Adnan A Hezri, The Sustainability Shift: Refashioning Malaysia’s Future
(Penang: Areca Books, 2016), 222pp, References, Index

Book review by M Nadarajah

Adnan Hezri’s book, The Sustainability Shift: Refashioning Malaysia’s Future, offers a good insight into the dynamics of the policies and institutional environments affecting sustainability in Malaysia.

Hezri very deftly takes us through the complex national policy environment. It is the author’s observation that for several reasons, the present Malaysian policy and institutional environments are not doing enough or are inadequate to promote sustainable development. In fact, they are not in the ‘sustainable development mode’ as it were.

Tinkering with policies not enough

His proposal is to address the challenges, shortcomings and scope of the policies and the institutional environments to allow us to shift from mere concerns of environmental protection to the larger concerns of sustainability.

Beyond the complexity of Hezri’s effort, the ‘cognitive strategy’ adopted in the book is fairly simple and straightforward. As stated above, the policy environment is not mature enough to handle the present national and global concerns of sustainability. All we need do is to set it right.

Though by no measure simple, all we need to do is re-work the policy environment by moving it away from its present jumble of obstacles and shortsightedness, and by shaping it with new concerns, aims and directions towards sustainability.

In this regard, we must credit Hezri for some very innovative suggestions and use of phrases for refashioning Malaysian’s future(s). Suggestions such as “sustainability citizenship” and “institutional heartware” are exciting, engaging and worth exploring.

But beyond this labour of love to create a dynamic new policy environment peppered with some innovative concepts to achieve a ‘sustainability shift’ in Malaysia, the book does not really offer a glocally appropriate or genuine way forward that is locally, nationally and globally relevant. Of course, following what Hezri suggests will certainly help Malaysia – but refashioning Malaysia’s sustainable future(s)? I am not sure.

A serious mess

The world, in reality, is in a very serious mess. We are in a state of glocal eco-emergency. Taking this observation of an eco-emergency, from the Eco-Manifesto: Forests, People and Sustainability in Malaysia, a manifesto produced by Transparency International in 2013, a manifesto prepared by a team of which I was a member, Hezri does not seem to have responded to what a state of emergency demands.

Many of the nine planetary boundaries are in the red. We have pushed it that way. More are moving in that direction. The ‘Earth Overshoot’ day is being brought forward every year: we had used up our 2016 resources by August; it would probably be July in 2017 or 2018.

Sadly, we are forcing the extinction of animals at increasing rates by destroying their habitat indiscriminately or poisoning the water or food they consume.

The climate change matter is grave as islands and a number of coastal areas are facing submergence. Homes and homelands are disappearing. The drastic glacial changes in the North and South Poles are going to pose extreme danger for the near future.

Forest cover around the world, including South East Asia, is being destroyed at a phenomenal rate. Incidence of inter-ethnic strive has grown. Border conflicts have grown.

Big money is being spent on wars – on buying and selling weapons. Once we produced weapons to fight wars; now, we are producing wars to sell arms! War is a big industry.

So is health. Medico-pharmaceutical business cannot afford a fully healthy population for that will be an oversupply of healthy people! We have ‘invented’ ill health.

The refugee situation in many parts of the world is really heart-wrenching. Children are victims of the madness that adults are responsible for. Displacement of indigenous communities and destruction of their sacred homes in the name of development and civilisation is growing, adding to the list of unspoken crimes against humanity.

Trafficking in women as cheap labour and sex slaves goes on unabated. The present targeting of people of the Islamic faith in many parts of the world is most worrisome as it is showing features of the Holocaust. We just cannot afford another one.

With all these tragic realities around us, we are still tinkering the system for solutions.

Something radical needed

Malaysia, the region and the world are in need of something really more drastic and more deeply radical (and I do not mean that this has to be with blood on our hands) at both the individual and societal levels.

Taking a step back and examining the content of the book, I suppose where we are located in society or the social science orientation we hold would have significant direct or indirect influence on how we view the world, its wellbeing, its challenges and the solutions we will discover or propose. A person’s social embeddedness will certainly influence his/her output. Our location certainly opens up a range of possibilities but hides others as well.

My observation is that Hezri’s detailed elaboration also presents an unfortunate narrowness and limitedness – digging deep in a narrow area. In a sense, it removes from the view of generations to come the fertile futures that young Malaysians could work towards.

Even so, The Sustainability Shift is certainly a valuable book for those exploring the national and global policy terrain to find pathways to sustainable future(s). My sincere hope is that Hezri reflects on his social embeddedness and its influence on his reading of the situation, his outputs, and even the inter-textual universe of his references.

There are several difficulties in the way Hezri has conceived Malaysia’s shift to sustainable future(s). There are many implicit and explicit aspects in the book that I am trying to grapple and contend with.

Silencing the dominated

First, in several places, Hezri uses “sustainable futures”, ie future in the plural. This indicates multiple sustainable futures for Malaysia, an idea that has not been developed in Hezri’s book. What are these futures? Who are behind these possible futures?

And are these futures a product of the same policy environment Hezri has in mind? Does a plurality of futures provide an opportunity to propose a plurality of policies, even a radical one? This is not considered in the book.

In the context of the proposal for plural futures, we need to consider the nature of policies. In a way, in the book, a policy is seen as an objective, a non-class reality; and, therefore unproblematic in its orientation. There are just good or bad policies.

But often a policy manages, marginalises or silences the voices of the dominated groups while it provides for the voices of the dominant, whether ethnic or corporate groups close to the ruling power.

That policies are a part of the hegemonic apparatus of the ruling classes or power groups is not really addressed in the book. And, as a result, there is no view of changes beyond the domain of the dominant policy. Nor does the book engage with a sociology of change beyond the sociology of policy. This is a rather limited approach.

Uncritical acceptance of UN discourse

Second, the origin of sustainability thinking and practice is critical in all efforts to think about sustainability as a philosophical and practical notion.

While Hezri makes an effort to explore such ideas and practices culturally specific to Malaysia, the book largely addresses and focuses on the global sustainability discourse sustained by global institutions, including the United Nations, with which Malaysia engages. This by itself is not a bad strategy but to stay there as the only way to reach sustainability is not really sound.

The hurry to engage with the UN-generated global discourse is counter-productive. It reveals a rather poor examination of local pathways, a careless neglect of developing a local discourse on sustainability and an assumption that systematic thinking about sustainability is the terrain of experts from institutes, universities or think-tanks.

Sadly, Hezri has been unable to develop local philosophical or cultural orientations to sustainability; the book is more aligned to how close we can get to the UN agenda. There seems to also be an uncritical acceptance of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, particularly its eagerness to engage with poverty but its avoidance to critically evaluate and confront the problem of affluence.

In this regard, in my recent travels in Thailand, several books that seem to challenge mainstream ideas and contribute to a Thai orientation to sustainability were brought to my attention. I think we need to explore such books as Sufficiency Thinking by Gayle C Avery and Harald Bergsteiner, and The Wellbeing Society by Hans van Willenswaard. These sustainability philosophies, sensitive to local ecologies, have glocal applications.

The problem with growth

Third, while Hezri explores the policy environment, his attention to the larger socio-political or the political economy contexts of the policy environment is not clear to begin with. It seems like he is addressing the state’s governance issues on the aspect of environmental management or sustainability.

But by the time you arrive at chapter 8, which is on ‘The Green Economy’, you begin to see his orientation a little more clearly. It is based on the growth-based capitalist economy, now managed within critical green boundaries that supposedly change the nature of growth.

The first relates to Hezri’s observation that some NGOs still do not trust business. I am not sure why he uses the word still, except to suggest that NGOs are getting it all wrong by not trusting businesses!

I do not see why NGOs should trust businesses altogether. How many corporate entities are really of the kind of social businesses proposed by, say, someone like Mohammad Yunus? Or how many Malaysian businesses do their annual reports on the basis of the triple-bottomline initiative?

I think that NGOs are “still” critical of business because one of the biggest groups responsible for the state of the global environment today is the business community. NGOs ought to be still suspicious and critical of businesses.

To build the green economy that Hezri proposes, the role and critiques of NGOs are absolutely crucial. Also, in a democracy, NGOs must own their own legitimate spaces and freedom of expression and not be rationalised to appear or work under one state policy.

The second issue is fundamental: ‘Being green’ is confused with ‘being sustainable’. These are two different realities: anything that is green need not be sustainable.

If in the long run, for instance, a green economy horizontally and vertically intensifies commodification, escalating retail and wholesale material consumption, it is not possible to refashion sustainable futures. There is no future in this pathway.

Can dependence on a reformed, growth-based economy, guided by green approaches and measures, build Malaysia’s sustainable future(s)? Can privileging a modified economy, and calling it a green economy really serve the cause of sustainability? Can we go ahead and really build a sustainable world and future without ‘letting go’ of our present notions of growth, affluence and achievements?

Can we not go beyond the green economy and explore more radical and/or mindful approaches? There is an argument about alternative energy, a part of the green economy position — having more and more clean energy is really not a solution to sustainability as it continues to drive mindless retail and wholesale consumerism, still affecting planetary boundaries adversely.

The blind consumption madness marches on. Where do we stop, let go and scale down?

The green economy is just wired to delay the disasters and offer a false sense of security and sustainability. It is one of those sophisticated tinkering solutions, even as landmasses and homes submerge in the South Pacific and even as we lose forest cover at a phenomenal rate in South East Asia.

Our general inability to deal with growth so far is not just a global ecological problem or policy non-alignment. It is also seriously a moral and spiritual problem.

These are issues that do not get any space in Hezri’s book. Basically, there is no engagement with many radical orientations and measures that have developed over the last two or three decades that propose sustainable futures, futures that Malaysia can grow into, with a reformed political will.

Other areas have to be explored

Fourth, there appears to be a clear assumption that sustainability is about ecology. There seems to be emphasis on the policy environment and its impact on the relationship between society and ecology. While there is some effort to look at the larger picture, the ‘sustainability sense’ needs to explicitly capture both the natural and the human components.

So, the book fails to touch on aspects like multicultural policy or inter-religious policy that have implications for the sustainability of Malaysia’s future. Nor does it explore in depth policies related to indigenous communities. Our health policy is unsustainable.

How can Malaysia’s sustainable future(s) be conceived and built without all these areas being explored and incorporated into a broader orientation to sustainability? A cursory examination of recent critical writings on Malaysia simply shows that we are very far from being sustainable.

Nationalist orientation inadequate

The fifth and final matter I am trying to grapple with is the position of proposing to develop ‘sustainability-in-one-country’. Is this possible in today’s globalised world with cross-border problems? When everything is so delicately interconnected and interdependent, is it a viable position?

Of course, Hezri draws from the UN but the UN alone cannot reflect the universal position. There are many other sites in the world where this universal voice is being articulated that is beyond the UN.

The space-time frame for sustainability is unique in that it needs a global spatial orientation (the standpoint of Mother Earth) and longer temporal (generational) duration for it to take root. Though working within national boundaries, anyone thinking of contributing to sustainable futures cannot present it from a narrow nationalist orientation.

The voice of sustainability that comes from many social sites facing planetary challenges is a universal one, cutting across limiting socio-cultural and socio-political contingencies. It is the collective voice of the citizens of one human society. This is perhaps what ‘sustainability citizenship’ is or should be: a global citizenship.

Aside from my concerns and efforts to grapple with Hezri’s contributions, the reader will indeed learn a great deal from his deliberations and robust efforts at going through the policy maze. It is certainly a book that offers us some handles to engage with the policy future or futures for sustainable development that we want for Malaysia.

It is perhaps worthwhile to rethink how we are going to create a policy environment that genuinely addresses the ‘sustainability shift’ and ‘refashioning’ of Malaysia’s future(s) as we engage ourselves with the diversity of universal voices and as we respond to glocal eco-emergency.

Dr M Nadarajah (Nat) is a sociologist, member of the Asian Public Intellectual (API) community and author. He works on issues related to culture, sustainability and spirituality.

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