Dreaming with the Environment

Dark ocean waves reflecting light

Photo by Tom Barrett


Dear Reader,

In Rebecca Tamás’ Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman, she asks,

“What thought would have been impossible if Shakespeare had not had the memory of the slanting forest of Arden, its fuzzy, mud-thick equality of plants, animals, and desires? … if Tagore had not travelled to the icy, sharply intense landscape of Himachal Pradesh’s border with Kashmir, or the freeing blue horizon of rice paddies in Shantiniketan? … without Virginia Woolf’s time in the rolling hill of Sussex, clouds going in and out, bird noises, slash of water and the daring changes of the colours on the leaves?”

Tamás posits that as we lose access to the natural world, as we stifle, corrupt and diminish it, we lose access to forms of thought, and suppress our own potential for new kinds of thinking. In doing so, we limit the expansiveness of human thought: what kind of literature do we lose when we erode the planet? What kind of beauty, poetry, and art become forever lost when we strangle the natural world?

In my essay in Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene, I pondered the inverse: what kind of art emerged in the 1950s as a result of the world-changing forces of petrol and oil consumption? I wondered how the sudden omnipresence of crude oil in 1950s Singapore may have shaped the emergence of the orang minyak, or the oily man, on our silver screens. (Ironically, the very medium of film itself could not have existed without the emergence of petroleum and plastics, which film strips are made of. Perhaps it is fitting that films are our only gateway into understanding how this substance was received by the people on this island.)

The essay’s biggest detriment might be that it does not search for a solution to this issue of petro-reliance. It merely dwells on this moment where a strange substance suddenly became ubiquitous, and asks what these films might have had to say about this black goo. What forms of thought became possible? On the flipside, what forms of thought were foreclosed? When we journey with oil’s cultural history, what roads does it lead us down?

The orang minyak films suggest oil leads us down a path of extraction and destruction. Similarly, as we lose forests, islands, and biospheres to climate change, we irreversibly damage and narrow our capacity to dream, imagine, and explore. Nevertheless, these films demonstrate that climate change can be responsible for ushering in new forms of art that respond to the zeitgeist, prodding and questioning, overtly or covertly.

Natural spaces are not just spaces to reflect and ponder within; nature itself is a co-creative force. On Earth Day, I will be ruminating on the ideas and images that have taken root and germinated during long walks along Singapore’s forests, its Southern islands, and its shores. To the reader, I ask, how has nature, or the effects of climate change, shaped your poetry, your art, your worldview?

Contributor to Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene

(From April 10, 2021)