How environmentalism will take us home

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Photograph: Eric Thoo

The environmental movement is no longer something that can be ignored. In fact, it is the only hope of saving our planet – and young people are taking the lead, writes Eric Thoo. 

Environmentalism may be depicted in mainstream media primarily as a battle for the Earth and to save ourselves from extinction. But that is less than half the story.

Environmentalism, in effect, transverses beyond the physical plane. Environmentalism is a way of Life – one that questions and redefines where we stand in this world, and what our relationship with the rest of God’s creation is.

How to save a life

Despite what we love to think, we often neglect to truly understand a person. To know a person takes way too much time and actually requires real effort.

The solution to achieve maximum productivity within a short period of time? Labelling people into specific groups. Ideally during the first eight minutes after the first hi. New colleague Adam is either an optimist or a pessimist. That neighbour’s kid is either an introvert or an extrovert. Suzy doesn’t click with me; she’s just not my type. Now that is much easier.

We act as though something as complex and unique as the human psyche can be reduced into rows and columns in a spreadsheet. If you think we treat our human counterparts as though they are commodities, like how markets categorise goods into different departments, you are probably spot on.

When the moral line blurs

Year 2001. A usual humid and windless day in Penang. In a typical Standard 4 (fourth grade) Science class.

As with the syllabus at the time, we were introduced to the relationship between the living things in an ecosystem. Our teacher gave us some examples of “害虫” (/hàichóng/; pests in Chinese) and “益虫” (/yìchóng/; beneficial insects in Chinese).

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Teaching in primary school was pretty straightforward back then. We were simply told to appreciate the beneficial insects and exterminate the pests on sight. Now this part was lost on me. How do you decide which is which?

“Teacher Liu, why are rats pests?”

“Because they eat our crops.”

“Why are owls beneficial insects?”

“Because they eat rats,” Teacher Liu replied matter-of-factly, his explanation essentially no different from saying the sky is blue.

Obviously, I wasn’t getting something that was, well, obvious. I was left to decipher what those answers meant – until the revelation hit me like a truck: animals that are bad (for humans) are revolting pests; animals that are good (for humans) are precious beneficial animals.

The casual arrogance behind this reasoning was discomforting, to say the least, for the 10-year-old me.

Human-wildlife conflict (or so they say)

By definition, human-wildlife conflict refers to the tension that ensues following an event when wildlife ‘breaks into’ human territory. Violence often erupts like what we saw in the award-winning photograph taken by Biplab Hazra. Elephants were thrown burning tar balls and burned by mobs in India.

The notion that nobody likes their home invaded by anything is comprehensible – especially when the invading group is made up of unpredictable wildlife, no less.

Except the elephants didn’t invade our space for no reason. It was precisely our deforestation activity that drove them out of their homes. It was our extreme, polluting behaviour that deprived them of precious food.

When our debts come knocking on the front door, we shove them off – with deadly force. You’d think we would take responsibility for our actions, the way we teach our kids.

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Human-wildlife conflict was never a fair scientific term. At least not for one of the two parties involved.

Environmentalism – the best hack to recalibrate our moral compass

The approaching doomsday scenario beyond 2050 is certainly unsettling. All of us are, essentially, future climate refugees. And our current trajectory towards temperatures much higher than 2⁰C by that fateful year offers little comfort. But all hope is not lost.

Whether it is the young people of the Langur Project Penang displaying passionate commitment to wildlife conservation in Penang or the young hikers who decided to guard what they love ie Nature and its breathtaking views, these youth, the ‘new blood’ in environmentalism, are working hard to seize the opportunity presented during these troubled times.

After all, what better reason is there to finally prioritise sustainable development – the future of the planet, on which our lives depend, is at stake. We have arrived at a crossroads: environmentalism is ultimately not something decision-makers can sweep under the carpet until better times.

In the face of our inevitable species extinction, much of it due to harmful or unsustainable human activity, perhaps the most pressing question we should ponder on is, who are the real 害虫 (/hàichóng/) on Earth, exactly?

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Eric Thoo, an Aliran member, is an aspiring environmental writer, avid reader and pluviophile (lover of rain). Climate change and the doomsday scenario beyond 2050 may be unnerving, he says. “In the eyes of modern environmentalism, however, this also means we have been presented the opportunity of our time – and I have decided to be part of it through writing!” Eric participated in Aliran's Young Writers Workshop on Elections and Change in March 2018.
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Tengku JW
10 Feb 2018 9.42pm

Umno and Perkasa