Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Michele Chong’s “Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene: Environmental Perspectives on Life in Singapore” (Book Club, April 2021)

Fridays for Future protest at Bonn, Germany (Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash)

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These are the discussion prompts and notes from the April 2021 book club, when we discussed Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Michele Chong’s “Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene: Environmental Perspectives on Life in Singapore” (https://nlb.overdrive.com/media/5614683?cid=1119234).

In April, we drew directly from the book club starter pack provided by the authors and the publisher.

1. Overall, what was your favourite chapter?

  • Overall, the chapters moved from a more humanistic and personal approach to one which was more systemic (for instance, at the end, what should growth look like in the future?) Most also took historical and cultural approaches.
  • The chapters on the three animals was of interest, framed in terms of their relationship with humans. The function of nature, beyond the extent to which it is aesthetically pleasing, was explored.
  • The power of imagery was highlighted throughout the chapters. During our discussion, the examples of Clement and Dover forests were raised.
  • In addition, “The Production of Space” by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre was briefly cited during the discussion, on “space” as a social construction and the norms and relationships within the modern urban city.

2. (Introduction: Seeing Singapore with new eyes) Do you agree that “in this era of climate crisis, fundamental change is on the horizon, one way or another, to the places we’ve known and the lives we’ve come to enjoy and expect”? What thoughts, feelings, or desires does this claim spark in you?

  • We discussed the language of inevitability, evaluating development and competition on one hand and navigating climate change and the climate crisis on the other.
  • Some expressed feelings of being trapped in this long march in history. This was tied to feelings of anxiety.
  • Personal narratives are important because they return the agency to the individual.
  • However, as a society, we have to make fundamental changes collectively, in addition to the documentation of small, day-to-day activities, practices, and observations. There are limits to individual lifestyle changes, even if they do make a difference, and the chapter on outdoor education examining our connections to nature (or lack thereof) was cited.
  • Individuals and groups have known about change for a long time. Anxiety can be used in productive and creative ways, especially in the degrowth discourse.

3. (To build a city-state and erode history: Sand and the construction of Singapore) Should Singapore stop reclaiming land altogether? If not, how might land reclamation take place in a way that is more restorative, rather than destructive or exploitative?

  • With the example that the sand in Sentosa is not actually from Sentosa, we discussed the embodied imagery of Singapore as being perpetually under construction. Instances include road works and covered walkways as a political carrot.
  • There was no question that Singapore is culpable in the region, responsible for the emptying of beachfronts.
  • Singapore cannot use the defence and it is not the country’s fault, even though it often maintains that the arrangements are economically sound and contractually-bound. While Singapore cannot govern the entirety of the global sand supply chain, it can make a difference, by making do with our land. After all, Singapore is known for its urban development.
  • In addition, parallels were drawn to the country’s relationship with foreign domestic workers.
  • Through land reclamation, Singapore could also be erasing its own history. Using the tourist attraction Gardens by the Bay as an example, parallels were drawn between colonialism and reclamation.

4. (Changing course: Jewel Changi and the ethics of aviation) Would you be willing to reduce your air travel, or give it up entirely? How much responsibility do individual consumers have for aviation emissions that contribute to climate change, as compared to corporations and governments?

  • Travel has special significance in Singapore. First, there is a reverence for aviation in Singapore, represented by the support for Singapore Airlines and Changi Airport.
  • Second, because the country is small and stress is pervasive, there are psychological benefits to travelling. It would be nice, as we discussed, to get out once in a while.
  • There are some silver linings with the pandemic. Business travel might go down, though that may be counterbalanced by increased freight activity, as more Singaporeans purchased goods from overseas.
  • We also discussed alternative modes of transportation, such as a transition from air to ship travel. This could apply to freight too, since airplanes report higher emissions compared to transportation ships.
  • Finally, given that Singapore has a guilt public transportation system, it should think with the region in mind, for instance exploring a high-speed rail system with other South East Asian nations.

5. (Singapore on fire: From fossil history to climate activism) The author states that those who are not comfortable with being activists can contribute in their own ways, as engineers, civil servants, marketers and so on. How might you leverage your own unique position – your abilities, skills, and resources – to contribute to meaningful action on climate change?

  • To better understand our disconnect from the environment, one is involved through volunteerism in ethnobotany exhibitions, through which the history of flora and fauna and natural biodiversity are better understood. Similarly, there were discussions of community gardens where the stories of plants are shared.
  • Others are involved through activism and advocacy in local climate groups, doing activities such as but not limited to showing up for events, writing, and seeding the degrowth agenda. At the same time, the difficulty of activism as well as the importance of supporting others and managing burnout were mentioned.
  • The discussion also moved to taking more radical steps, including for religious discourse. One cited the example of a rabbi overseas who asked a congregation to move away from meat. Another mentioned that Pope Francis has emphasised climate change as an existential crisis, though these narratives may run up again the “Man is dominant” belief.
  • Finally, changes within the family or among social groups were also noted as important steps.

6. (Another garden city is possible: A plan for post-carbon Singapore) This chapter encourages the reader to embrace degrowth and “do away with the notion that consuming more and more things will make us happier … liberate ourselves from the idea that having a new phone every year, or new clothes every season, makes us any better off [and] shift from private excess to public abundance.” Do you think this notion of degrowth is possible in our society? What is the ongoing pandemic teaching us about the possibility of radical changes in our consumption and behaviour?

  • In dealing with a capitalist reality, even changing our thinking of the present economic system may not be enough. One mused that it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
  • In other words, we have to envision a post-carbon Singapore which is going to be very different from the status quo. It will not be the same order of things, with implications for jobs and employment and how labour is perceived.
  • Degrowth remains a contested concept, and the contestation is not necessarily deleterious. In addition, degrowth can be overwhelming and its anti-colonial critique should be examined.
  • A greener society should also be a fairer society, in relation to care work and fair wages. The climate crisis and the intersection with (precarious) labour were stressed.
  • Ultimately, we seem to be wrestling with the relationship between wealth and nature.

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