The narrative has to change.
For Earth Day 2020, we bring you an edited transcript of Not Just Fiction: Writing the Climate Crisis which was live-streamed from The Moon on 28th March 2020. Featuring Esther Vincent (The Tiger Moth Review), Melissa Low (NUS Energy Studies Institute) and Komal Lad (SG Climate Rally), the hour-long dialogue delved into the intersections of literature and the climate crisis, how to manage eco-anxiety, how feminism relates to the climate crisis and much more! You can view the livestream here.
& keep your eyes peeled for the launch of “Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene”, an essay collection that looks at the contemporary Singaporean environment through an eco-cultural lens. From chilli crab to Tiger Beer, Changi Airport to Pulau Semakau, O-Levels to orang minyak films, the essays offer fresh perspectives on familiar subjects, prompting us to recognise the urgency of climate crisis and how we can transform our ways of thinking, acting, learning and living. Leave your email here if you’d like to be notified when Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene is released!
We were also joined by the book’s editor, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson (Yale NUS), in the last 10 minutes of this panel to talk a bit more about this exciting new essay collection we will be birthing very soon. Read the preview at the end of this page.
Jennifer: Hello everyone on the internet! Thanks for joining us, this is our panel Not Just Fiction: Writing the Climate Crisis. I am Jennifer from Ethos Books, and I have with me today three lovely speakers: Esther Vincent, Komal Lad and Melissa Low.
I’m thankful that we could have this conversation. A lot has been happening due to the coronavirus and I have to confess: it’s been very difficult for me to think about the climate crisis as I usually would. I don’t know whether you all feel the same way, but I hope for the next hour we can get together and talk as a community about the climate crisis.
First, we have Esther Vincent, who is the human behind The Tiger Moth Review, Singapore’s first eco-conscious independent art and literature journal. She’s also the co-editor of two poetry anthologies by Ethos Books, one of which is Poetry Moves. Esther edited this book along with Loh Chin Ee, Angelia Poon and Ann Ang. She’s also an educator.
Next, we have Komal Lad, who is a Year 2 student from Environmental Studies at NUS, and she is the founder of SG Climate Rally. She’s also, if you didn’t know, a songwriter and rapper, so she actually does rap videos under the name DJ Lad!
Last but not least, we have Melissa Low, who is a research fellow at Energy Studies Institute, NUS. I know Mel through Books & Beer Singapore, so she’s also a fellow book lover from the community. In her work she’s an active sustainability thought leader who provides policy analysis and conducts workshops on improving the understanding of the Paris Agreement. Her current research focus is on the transparency of climate action and supporting the reporting of governments in Southeast Asia about meeting their climate goals.
Today we want to talk about writing the climate crisis and the role of literature or the arts in the climate crisis. At the end of this dialogue, we’ll have a preview of Ethos Books’ upcoming publication, Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene.
Jennifer: My own journey towards environmental consciousness and caring about the climate crisis was very gradual; I didn’t just wake up one day and think: “Oh my god, the Earth is burning!” In secondary school I already understood that the climate crisis was real, but it was over the span of a few years that I became conscious about it. How did you all gain environmental consciousness? How did it start for you?
Esther: Towards the end of 2018 I was finishing up my stint at the School of the Arts and I was going to join NTU to do my MA in Creative Writing. I suppose knowing that I had an empty space gave me ideas of how I should fill up that space. I was also writing some eco-related poetry and looking for places to submit my poetry. And unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I found that there were no dedicated eco journals or magazines in Singapore. And so I was frustrated—but I guess I channelled that frustration creatively, and I thought, “You know what, if something doesn’t exist, then perhaps I should create it; maybe I should start something.”
That open space in terms of the time that I would have to devote to reading, to writing, to just pursuing my own creative pursuits, inspired me to found The Tiger Moth Review.
To answer Jennifer’s question, how did my environmental consciousness come about: when I think back, I remember my childhood quite fondly and strongly. Two images come to mind; the first would be this empty field that I write about and recurs in my poetry. This field where I would play in when I was maybe in primary school, unattended. My mother would be at home, but she’d be able to look out. I would be roaming in the field, plucking weeds, imagining all sorts of things and also playing with this tiger moth.
The tiger moth is also an important insect, an important symbol and image that recurs from my childhood days. For me it signifies a connection with nature and this field—when I think about it now as an adult, reflecting on my childhood—I see it as a symbol of metaphor for this creative space for a child to imagine and to grow and to nurture that kind of relationship with nature. In whatever form it may appear: in the form of a wallflower, a weed or an insect. These are two images that come to mind.
Growing up I was reading a lot of books about the wilderness and adventure. I watched movies in 1990s like Free Willy and Born to be Free. The kinds of films that would advocate against captive animals. My dad also used to draw for me in a jotter book, in pencil, different images of animals. I think this subconscious exposure to nature would already have instilled in me this love for animals and a love for nature.
As I grew older, the books that I would read, the kind of interactions I would have, the documentaries I would watch—all these culminated to 2018, when I felt the time was right for me. I thought, okay, I will create The Tiger Moth Review, and this would be a space for artists, writers and photographers. For us to be able to submit work and to engage in ecological conversations.
Komal: I think my journey was also quite gradual. It started during primary school days, when we had these sparks of environmental knowledge or documentaries during Earth Day and Earth Hour. That cultivated the interest in the environment. It was always at the back of my mind.
Over time, I wanted to do things for the environment, I wanted to bring my friends together and I started a mini environmental group and things like that. But I had huge commitments like O-levels and A-levels. After A-Levels, I decided that if I really wanted to commit to work for the environment, I should just do it as full-time study at Environmental Studies at NUS.
From there, I started learning more about the environment and that really concerned me, because environmental issues are very interlinked, very complex, not just scientific. Social, political and economic—a lot of things are interlinked. That was what encouraged me to eventually raise my voice and play a part in organising Climate Rally.
Melissa: For me, it was completely by chance. I was in Catholic Junior College about fifteen years ago, and you know how A-levels is really tough in Singapore. I was one of those people who didn’t want to join an intensive CCA, so I joined the Geog-Soc Earth Society in CJC. It was once a week on Wednesdays, I remember. I was never really environmental before that. What happened was that our teacher at the time said: “Why don’t you guys join the SembCorp environmental challenge?”
So we put together a compost and won a merit award. I went on to university, and in my final year I had the opportunity to submit an essay to attend the Copenhagen (COP 15). It was the first ever climate change conference I went to. It’s purely by chance that I entered into this fray. I’ve been really lucky to have this opportunity to share my views on this.
Jennifer: So composting led you to this entire field of environmental studies and going to conferences around the world?
Melissa: In 2005, because of Earth Day, my friends and I dressed up as Captain Planet and the Planeteers! This was way before the anti-straw movement, and we actually petitioned for our school to ban straws on Earth Day. We had to go around the school in the Planeteers’ outfit and somebody painted himself blue to go around the school. People laughed at it of course at the time, it was 2005 and such a long time ago, but if we look at the environmental crisis today and movements such as Climate Rally, we’ve come some way.
Jennifer: I get the sense that it’s the combination of personal history that tells the story of how you became invested in the climate crisis and also what you learned in schools. How do you feel about the story of climate crisis that’s being told now in Singapore? Whether it’s within the community itself, or to the individual. How do you find that story being told? Maybe we’ll start with Komal, because I feel like you have the foothold as an advocate; you were part of SG Climate Rally, so how was that like for you?
Komal: From my observations, I feel that a little over a year ago, there was more emphasis on individual action. A lot of people advocated for the use of their own bottle, take away your own food, and also the straw movement.
But, slowly, because of the whole range of events that have been happening recently like the Australian fires and people speaking up in different parts of the world, this narrative has shifted more towards collective action. Now, people are talking more about systemic action, taking part in raising their voices together and speaking up against different institutions. I think that’s one major shift that I see.
Another story that people really relate to—especially people of my age—is they don’t want their children or grandchildren to face these horrible events that are predicted to happen. That is what really sets a lot of people to come down and be very passionate about solving the climate crisis.
I think there’s also this narrative about individual versus systemic action. A lot of people are very confused about whether we should support individual or systemic action, but I don’t think there has to be such a distinction, because at the end of the day, we are all going for the same thing. No matter what kind of action you take, it’s still an action and we just need to complement all these narratives together.
Also, I think there’s this common narrative of an enemy and a hero. It’s quite interesting because I guess this theory comes about when we watch a lot of movies and books where’s there’s a clear protagonist and a clear antagonist, but a lot of times that’s not the case. In environmental issues, you can’t exactly pinpoint, “This is the bad guy, this is the good guy.” A lot of people may be acting in their self-interest. A lot of times, we also have a bit of good and a bit of bad in us, and we also act the same way.
In order to dissolve this divide, I think there has to be more empathy around us to understand different viewpoints, and to combine these narratives so that all of us share a common vision about tackling the climate crisis.
Jennifer: I’m really interested in the point you made about the hero and the villain. Another point to take note of is that there is a lot of the ‘hero narrative’. Rebecca Solnit talks about the problem of the hero in the climate crisis. For example—Greta Thunberg—people look up to her and they see her as this singular figure that is driving the climate crisis.
But the problem is when you rely on people like Greta to push, and you yourself are not really doing much beyond that, except looking to her and the younger generation for hope. That’s also something we have to come to terms with.
Esther: From a literary and arts perspective I know that early in the year, Sustainable Singapore Gallery did organise an eco-poetry event. I would say that there is definitely a kind of growing consciousness or interest or concern for environmental issues in Singapore. In terms of the arts, I think NTU CCA (Centre for Contemporary Art) has always been chanmpioning eco, nature and environment-related exhibitions and projects. I think about submissions to The Tiger Moth Review, as well as Ernest Koh of Ayer Ayer Project, he is also invested in investigating microplasticity in the beaches in Singapore. Last year, the ArtScience Museum—they also did have a focus on imagined futures (2219: Futures Imagined exhibition). I would say that in terms of the community, there is an acknowledgement and a growing recognition.
In terms of the government, most of us would be familiar with NParks releasing the news that instead of the City in the Garden, now we’re moving towards City in Nature. There were quite a couple of policies that were released around how Singapore’s going to adapt, in terms of how we can place more emphasis on sustainability.
As a people, there is this awareness and we have to ask ourselves about what Komal mentioned: how do we do our part individually and how we can also work together as a collective community to be culpable and responsible—to really effect some kind of change.
Melissa: In my work at ESI NUS, I obviously have to do a lot of writing. What I try to do on a daily basis is literally to interpret what is going on in climate change at an international level: what do some of these things from the Paris Agreement mean for Singapore, for other countries, and what do the pledges mean.
The important thing is that in Singapore, there is some discussion about whether the pledges that we put out are sufficient to meet the global temperature threshold of 2 degrees Celsius. I don’t like to call it a goal, because it’s not a goal that you’re trying to achieve. It’s actually a threshold beyond which you will suffer catastrophic climate change. That narrative is really important. Just like how we talk about the hero; sometimes that kind of narrative is not very helpful.
What I try to do is to make sure that work, research and the outputs are accessible to people. In academia it’s difficult because when you talk about universities, what they want is publications in international peer reviewed journals. That’s important too, to contribute to knowledge.
But as far as the last 10 years ago, what we’ve seen in Singapore is a proliferation of work that is more accessible to young people, to the general public. Even the government of Singapore has started to pay more attention to young people, not least because of the SG Climate Rally, and I believe there was a public consultation held last year for three months on our Long-Term Low Emissions Development Strategy—our 2050 plan, as it were. And they engaged young people in that public consultation.
So I think the narrative has to change, and the way we engage with people has to change, but we still need to keep fighting. Because this issue is global; Singapore is a tiny island nation. We are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, but at the same time in terms of mitigation we have so much more we need to contribute because we host one of the largest petrochemical industry sectors in the world. I think that’s where young people and members of the public who are keen observers of the climate crisis are very confused. On the one hand, we say we’re doing as much as we can, but we still have this industry. Then we grapple with adaption; life is hard as it is, and we have to think about the climate crisis—and now COVID-19. We all have a part to play in terms of shaping and reshaping that narrative in our everyday lives.
Jennifer: Thanks, Mel for talking about the narratives and what you mentioned about a lot of the studies being published in peer reviewed journals, the more academic side. I notice a lot of current writing, or mainstream writing about the climate crisis tends to be non-fiction, in the sense of what Mel does in terms of writing papers analysing the effects of the crisis. On the other hand we have fiction, but fiction about climate change and crisis is always relegated to a sub-genre.
Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement talks at length about it; how it’s been relegated to sci-fi, speculative fiction. It’s always these kinds of sub-genres, not general fiction. So if you want to read about the climate crisis, you’ve gotta purposely go to these sub-genres. A mainstream reader will never pick up a book about the climate crisis because it’s always being sorted out into this separate field. I wanted to ask: Mel, what do you think about this current demarcation of anything to do with the climate crisis into these neat little fields? Whether it’s in academia or in fiction, how does it affect everything?
Mellisa: It’s also very depressing. If you ask me about what books I read on the climate crisis, I would say I don’t read books on the climate crisis. Because if I want to read, I want to read stuff that makes me happy and cheer me up, because I already deal with this stuff at work every single day, and then some. I think it’s important to find balance, I agree that in terms of the relegation to sci-fi it might be difficult, but I feel like the internet has just been a huge game-changer in all of this.
I think a lot of people are also starting to publish their work on Medium.com. There are many news outlets that will take and review commentaries and op-eds written by literally anyone who is concerned about the climate crisis. I think that is going to change the way people read and think about the climate crisis. Not that the books are not important—they are. They should help us expand our knowledge as well. But, in general, even for people who are keen observers, they sometimes find it difficult to even pick up a book and read about it in their free time.
I don’t know if I have a straight answer to your question, but it can be very depressing. Climate anxiety is absolutely real, and maybe we’ll have some time to talk about it as well; how to deal with it.
Jennifer: Your point about how it’s very depressing: a lot of the ‘climate change’ fiction is usually post-apocalyptic fiction—why is that the case? On the other hand, I’ve been hearing things about another new sub-genre called hopepunk. There’s a new sub-genre called solarpunk too—these want to reshape the way we think about the future. Thinking about the future in more positive terms; what if we choose the right path going ahead; what can we imagine to motivate us to do better?
What about Esther and Komal, what are your thoughts on writing in general, what can writers do?
Esther: Maybe I’m quite idealistic. I feel that writers and artists have a gift, and so they have a responsibility to first of all question their practice. Reflect and question and examine your own practice, and think about your own culpability in this carbon economy. Amitav Ghosh also writes that the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture and imagination. As artists and writers, how culpable are we in the participation of this carbon economy? Perhaps one of the reasons why is because fiction or writings about the climate crisis are usually relegated to the margins.
I do think that it’s important as a writer and as an artist to question your practice, and to then be very sensitive and attuned to what’s going on in the world; to take responsibility for what it is that you’re doing. As readers: I do think that to read is to inhabit, and we need to be open to inhabit the different perspectives, the different realities and worldviews that are presented to us. And then to also question and to demand of writers and artists that they are held accountable. I think the reader should be able to do that. And as a writer and artist, one should take on that responsibility. Of course you may disagree with me if you are a writer or an artist, it is really down to the individuals and your convictions, and down to what you believe in.
Komal: I would be a huge advocate for having optimistic messaging, rather than an apocalyptic or disruptive image. We have had such messaging for the longest of time, ever since, I think, fifty over years ago. We’ve been saying that we are going to face a huge apocalypse in the future. This kind of messaging does instill a sense of fear within us—which is a very strong emotion—but sometimes, it gets so strong that it actually paralyses us. It is also scientifically proven that we don’t get much done; it leads to inaction rather than action.
So, I’m a huge supporter of having hopeful messaging. Instead of saying in this amount of years we’re going to experience this, maybe it’ll be better to say this community has done this which has led to this good thing so if we all come together and we do this together, then can all see this change. I think that’s more encouraging, in a sense.
Also, I personally follow this book called The Secret by Rhonda Byrne: its message is that basically you are the law of universal attraction. You will attract what you think. If you think negative things then it will come to you, but if you think positive things then it will come to you. For example if you say, “I don’t want to fail in an exam,” then you will fail in the exam, because you used the negative word ‘fail’. Positive messaging really helps in shaping our minds and preparing ourselves for meaningful action.
Jennifer: I wanted to latch onto Esther’s point about how there’s a responsibility in the arts community. Amitav Ghosh also says, what is going to happen in thirty, fifty years from now, when the people who come after us see the writing of this era; the writing of the last ten years, the decade—they will be asking us: why is no one writing about climate fiction seriously? Why is it always on the margins of popular fiction, why was it never picked up by writers to talk about it?
If you’re a writer or a reader, we need to start thinking about how we can write and include the climate crisis in the everyday. Despite the fact that some of us suffer from eco-anxiety, we have to come and confront a lot of realities that could happen. I know some of you are overwhelmed by those thoughts as well.
As much as I want to be positive, I would also like to know how you deal with your own eco-anxiety. There was also a related question from the audience: how do you contend with your climate anxiety and guilt around resource use, such as flights and other things? How do you manage both of these things: your eco-anxiety and the idea that you’re also a part of the problem?
Melissa: Let me also touch on the issue of responsibility while I answer the question. As a researcher in a think-tank, yes, there is a huge sense of responsibility that some of the output—at least for me, what I want to put out—are things that can shape the minds or at least influence my readers to think about the issue more carefully. But the funding mechanisms of research institutes that—in the case of Singapore—can be tricky if you don’t want to ruffle feathers.
One of the strategies that I use that might be helpful for some of the people listening as well who are writing these things is that I tend to use a sandwich approach. You might want to speak to a particular policy in Singapore, or wherever else you choose to focus your attention on. And then you talk a little bit about what the policy can do—the positive messaging. So you are two-thirds of the way into the positive aspects and in the middle you strike: Sorry but this policy is not really working out.
I feel like by using that strategy it’s helped to at least get people to eyeball your work, and then take things up the chain of command, so that the people who need to really make the decisions on policy will actually be informed of these views, rather than if you went out and said everything is bad, and everything is negative. All the more these junior staff will not want to surface these things to their bosses. That’s my own sense of it, or maybe it’s self-censorship, I don’t know. But I think as a writer, often you are very self-reflective about your own role in this entire landscape. Whether it’s your writing more fiction, non-fiction work, or in my case it’s work that pertains specifically to policy analysis, I think it’s different but very similar in terms of the challenges.
When it comes to eco anxiety and grief, I really try not to think about it when I can. Oh my god, I’m gonna go live and say that I…drink. The whole point of Books & Beer is also because I enjoy reading and drinking, sometimes at the same time. Please don’t become an alcoholic, obviously, but I think everybody has their own way of escapism. Of escaping the reality that we’re in, and I think you just need to find your own space and quiet time to do that. I also read beyond the climate crisis because I enjoy it, so that’s something I do.
Jennifer: How do the rest of you deal with eco-anxiety?
Komal: I usually get episodes of eco-anxiety when I read too many articles about climate change. My way of escapism is to start daydreaming. It’s not very healthy if you do it for long hours, so what I try to do is to ground myself to reality and do a bit of studying, before I get back. Especially in the twenty-first century it’s very important to learn how to manage your emotions well, or else a lot of things don’t get done. Which is me sometimes. A lot of times.
Esther: I usually get angry when I read too much social media. I think this is something that many of us can identify with. When you wake up, you scroll, and you see the news. The Guardian Environment says something, and different news articles and different websites can kind of bring you down. I think it’s really important to take a step back, and I think earlier Komal mentioned something about how messages of hope and optimism are very important. To just acknowledge that you are an individual, and you have a certain circle of control—there are certain things you can control, certain things you can do, but there are certain things that are out of your control. Once again, you need to acknowledge and let go, and understand that this is also part of being a balanced individual.
So what is it that I can do? I can do my part in my own poetry, I can do my part in The Tiger Moth Review, which is also one of the ways that I cope with this—I don’t like the word anxiety, because I think anxiety is quite negative—so I would say eco-consciousness. The way that I cope with this consciousness and awareness, and being mindful of how our actions impact the environment. I think that’s how I deal with it.
Jennifer: It’s the same for me as well. This year, I started writing little letters about the climate crisis and sending them out to friends. Every week I would read a bit more and learn something, and write a letter to my friends saying hey, this is what I learnt this week. Try finding something that you can do, that makes you and helps you feel that you’re not just helpless and powerless in these times.
Melissa: In addition to the issue about trying to be positive, I also don’t waste my drinking sessions with my friends and just try to escape. You try to do partnerships. The whole point sometimes of getting people together is really to socialise in a way that has meaning and impact. I think that’s something that we all can do, which is to find strength in each other, rather than suffer it alone. That’s very important.
Jennifer: This has really been the more uplifting parts of this week, because we feel like we’re gathered here today and that we have some collective thing holding us together. And another tip I’ve read is that when you feel overwhelmed, just take time to step outside and just listen to the things around you. If you stop and listen long enough, you can hear the birds chirping. Enjoy the fact that you’re here and you’re able to enjoy this moment. Don’t rob yourself of the opportunity to be in the moment. I hope you’re motivated and you’re like, okay, I want to write for the climate crisis now! How do I do it, how can I start?
Esther: Please submit to The Tiger Moth Review if you want your voice to be heard! I’m not kidding, actually, I’m quite serious. Because I think we don’t receive enough submissions from people who identify as coming from Singapore. So yes, just do your part and write.
To add to what has been said so far by all of us, I think you have to find your own connections and make your own meaning. There is no one route, for instance, that says that you should write about this, you should do this, you should do that. You just need to go out and connect with yourself and figure out: what is it that speaks to me, and what is it that I want to do, and what is it that I’m good at doing and therefore I can contribute. It’s important to acknowledge that there is no one answer or one solution, and we just have to invest and commit to what it is that we find meaning in doing.
Komal: I agree with you that there is no one solution, per se. If you want to write something, if you want to do something, just do it. Don’t think so much about it. For example if you want to do nature photography and post it online. Just make it go professional, just do it because no one is going to judge you, as long as you are sincere enough. People will appreciate your work. That’s why I shamelessly post my rap videos online. Although there are times when I feel, this is not up to standard, this is quite shitty, as long as you are channelling your energy towards writing what you feel or what you want to convey, just do it.
Melissa: I want to add that what I think is important if you want to contribute to the issue—and to add to all of your good inputs here—is also to think about how you can contribute in terms of… For me, in the research area, we do find that we are lacking in a lot of Singapore scholarship on the issue. Just encouraging people to study, for instance, looking at how to measure greenhouse gas emissions and how to make sure that scrubbing technologies in the chimneys of power plants can be made more effective. Or to talk from a place of slightly more authority because it’s not just what you put out, you also have to think about who reads your stuff and what you do with it. Often, I reflect about this. Would people pay attention to what I say, if not for the qualifications that I have?
These are the kinds of things that listeners today might think about. If you want to pursue a Master’s degree, if you want to pursue a PhD, and be in a place where you can do research on the issue and contribute to the knowledge and the narrative, especially. I say this only because I feel that there is this resistance to interest groups, in a way. If you are labelled as a youth—a youth group—sometimes there is this feeling of “you’re a youth, so why should I listen to you?” It doesn’t happen everywhere, and I think I’m just generalising, but at the same time it’s something to think about. How too, could we brush up on our skillsets? There are a lot of free courses online as well, that the UN offers to people who want to learn how to do greenhouse gas inventory work, for instance. I’m happy to share more links.
Question 1: Jamie asks, can you speak to the intersections between gender issues and environmental issues? Why do you think more women seem to be interested in environmental activism?
Melissa: There is so much emotional labour involved in rallying people. Women are fix-uppers, right? That’s the stereotype anyway. I do notice that there are more women in this area of climate action and pushing for more. But that’s not to say that men are not interested too. Maybe it’s just optics wise you see more women coming out and talking about it. But behind the scenes—at least for my colleagues—there are many men who are doing research. Maybe they just don’t feel as comfortable going out there to speak and shout from the mountaintop, that’s my sense.
Jennifer: I feel like issues of gender and issues of the climate are both related to power. Like patriarchal power and power of the corporations versus the individual. Women, we have always needed to fight for our rights. I started as a feminist before I became an environmentalist. When I started becoming more aware of the climate crisis and what was happening—this power struggle between big corporations and indigenous populations—that idea of the dis-empowered and those in power, that inequality spoke to me.
Esther: Building on what you mentioned, I do think that gender studies and environmental studies…it does make sense that it’s a progression from this focus and movement from let’s say, feminist studies, women’s studies and now environmental studies. It is interrelated in terms of power, as Jennifer mentioned, patriarchy and marginalisation. In this case we could see the environment or the ecology as the marginalised, voiceless entity. I don’t want to stereotype, once again, or generalise, but those are just the connections I see.
Maybe it’s also the rule of creation—nature is a creative force. If we think in terms of a biological sense, the woman as a creator—and this also goes all the way to indigenous mindsets and beliefs—these are possibilities. Once again I don’t want to presume or assume, but these are just some connections that I’ve seen.
Question 2: Qiyun asks, how do you see art (visual, writing, audio,etc) & the art community in Singapore coming together in solidarity for climate activism? How do we get more creatives on board?
Jennifer: If you’re a creative please reach out to Ethos Books and I will be happy to make things happen. For me, it’s not really knowing which writers or authors out there is really invested in these issues. For Esther, she is an Ethos author and I know she runs Tiger Moth Review, it was very natural for me to go to her. But in terms of people speaking out about it, I don’t know more than a few names here and there.
Esther: Because I edit The Tiger Moth Review, I’ve had to be quite active in terms of reaching out to people and really paying attention to what’s going on, in terms of what are the exhibitions that are happening and who are the people who are invested in this issue. I did consider, perhaps in the future, organising some kind of panel where contributors of The Tiger Moth Review could come together as a community. I do think it’s quite important that there is a community that is able to reach out to each other.
Maybe Komal has something to say, in terms of the rally and community, do you actively engage people from the arts community, or how did it turn out for the first one?
Komal: For Climate Rally, last year we did have this banner painting activity hosted by Mural Lingo. That was a great activity where people came together and painted on the same banner. It built a community spirit through art. Climate Rally still has plans for engaging art as a means to raise issues about the climate crisis in the coming months. If you’re interested, you can reach out.
The first time I understood the use of art for activism was when I came in touch with Extinction Rebellion. That is one group that actively uses art for climate activism. They will do things like dancing on the streets.
I think that creativity of the arts brings people together and also talks about the climate crisis in a different way—in a way that has never exactly been done before. I think it will be good if the arts community in Singapore comes together to create a form of art that evokes the sense of climate crisis in a different way.
Melissa: Yes, I was going to talk about art in terms of the way people now consume digital media, the way they consume information on Instagram, Insta stories and so on. I think that’s so important because depending on who you want to reach out to, you will have to turn research into readable material, and I think that’s what folks like Qiyun (@theweirdandwild) do on Instagram and social media. Even SG Climate Rally has a website now, which just launched yesterday. So it’s things like that which put out information to people that’s accessible.
Very few people are going to read journal papers on climate change. How many of you read the IPCC assessment reports? It’s thousands of pages long. So you read the synthesis report, for instance. You read the info-graphs that come out of it. Creatives perhaps have an opportunity here to try and see if they can collaborate with people who are putting out research, to be able to turn that into accessible forms of digital media. Especially in a time like COVID, you want to be able to convey messages to people without having to meet. Perhaps we have to look at ways to partner each other, as creatives and also people who are writing and creating knowledge.
Question 3: Lucas asks, how do narratives of scarcity and survival shape the perception of sustainability and climate change amongst Singaporeans?
Melissa: It’s a very loaded question. The issue of scarcity and survival; I know some people would take issue with this. Sometimes when you hear about this issue, “Singapore is too small to contribute to the solution. We’re only contributing 0.11 per cent of global emissions.” Or the fact that we have a lack of access to alternative energy, resources as a means to power our society, our economy. We have to take that in context—that’s one of the ways the Singapore government speaks to the international community. But at the same time, a lot of us don’t buy that koyok—some people would call it propaganda—to say that we can’t do as much as we should. That does shape the narrative; I completely agree with Lucas. I try not to frame it as a problem, but a way to motivate myself to write and explain it further. How can we go on beyond thinking that we’re not able to do more? Because we can and we have a lot of resources in Singapore to do it.
Esther: It’s holding whoever who sets such narratives accountable, because if you think about the carbon emissions in Jurong Island alone, as compared to household carbon emissions: that’s around 60 per cent, as opposed to 6 per cent. When we read these kinds of narratives, when we receive such narratives, I think it’s quite political, it’s ideological. It is meant to make us think in a certain way, to perhaps accept that this is the way of life and that we cannot change it. Therefore we need to question it and ask, is that really the case, and why is it that such narratives are being told? Why do we not care? We should be doing something more, because we can.
Jennifer: To end off this segment— we go back to that point on narratives. What kind of narratives are we writing, what narratives are we making available for Singaporeans to engage with, to digest, beyond the idea of scarcity and survival in government discourse. What can we do as a literary community?
For example, Ethos Books has released In This Desert, There Were Seeds. It’s an anthology of fiction from writers in Australia and Singapore talking about the future, in whatever way they can imagine it. Some of them talk about the climate crisis and some don’t. This is one way we are trying to broaden the canon of what is being written about the climate.
Thank you to Esther, Komal and Melissa for joining us for the dialogue. If you’d like to connect with any of the panelists, please reach out to Ethos Books.
Preview of Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene: Environmental Perspectives on Life in Singapore with Matthew Schneider-Mayerson
Jennifer: Ethos Books will be publishing a new book about the climate crisis in Singapore, called Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene. Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene. I have the editor with me today, Dr Matthew Schneider-Mayerson.
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS College, where he teaches about environmental literature, politics and environmental futures. He is the editor of Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene: Environmental Perspectives on Life in Singapore, forthcoming from Ethos Books in June 2020.
I wanted to ask Matthew here today not only to be our guest, but also to talk a bit more about Eating Chilli Crab. The first question I wanted to ask: this is not your first book, you have published previous books before, so what makes Eating Chilli Crab different from what you’ve done before?
Matthew: Hey everyone, hi internet. The book that I just published is called An Ecotopian Lexicon, and this is about words that should exist in English, that don’t, that help us think about climate change and how to respond to it personally, psychologically, spiritually.
But of course we all approach climate change from a particular place, whether we’re Singaporean or living in Singapore like me, understanding how our cultures and our politics and our worldviews are complicit. In not just climate change, but also the broader crisis, and the waves responding to it, and changing the way that we live, the way that we think, the way that we govern, the way that we love, the way that we eat. We come at this from a particular place, so Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene is a volume of essays that is focused on sometimes very common things about life in Singapore.
There’s an essay about the chilli crab—it’s in there, it’s not false advertising. There’s an essay about Tiger Beer, and the disappearance of tigers in Southeast Asia. There’s an essay about orang minyak films, and the ways that they’re an example of Singaporean petrohorror. It goes on and on, and some of the things will be familiar to people, and this is offering a new environmental, cultural perspective on them. And some of them will be things that will be less familiar. So that’s how it’s different, and it’s a book that really, as far as I can tell, there’s not really anything like it, that’s looking at environmental culture in Singapore.
Jennifer: I agree, because I feel like a lot of our exposure to climate literature is always from the West, or from beyond Singapore. There is not a lot of writing about the impacts of climate change in Singapore, in terms of a general non-fiction book. So I’m really excited to read it. Do you have a favourite essay so far?
Matthew: That’s like trying to picking your favourite child. I don’t know, the ones I’ve been editing most recently are among my favourites. So one of them is about the way that we should educate Singaporean children in the age of climate change. It’s looking at the ways we’re inculcating certain values of competition and individualism and all these things, and the way that the world that today’s children are facing, the world that they are going to inhabit in the future is going to require different kinds of values: adaptability and flexibility. This is already being practiced by some folks in Singapore, at The Forest School in particular. So that’s one of my favourites.
The book ends with a policy vision—kind of like the Green New Deal for Singapore—trying to give us a sense of what a genuine ecological transition would look like in Singapore.
Jennifer: Why should people read and pick up Eating Chilli Crab?
Matthew: If you’re watching (or reading) this, this is a book that’s really aimed at you, so you will love this book. But I think more importantly, it’s a book that will appeal to your friends who may or may not be environmentalists. Climate change, responding to the climate crisis is going to require everyone getting on board, whether you care about wildlife, whether you like going to the beach, whether you think the wild is only something that exists in Gardens by the Bay.
It’s going to require everybody getting on board, so I think this is a book that will get people to see how the ways in which everything that we do is already environmental and that we need to be doing it a little bit differently.
All photos were taken by Ethan Leong. Thanks Ethan!