Resilience & Sustainability

Resilience; the ability to recover after pressure or a hardship. I personally like to think of resilience as pushing through and thriving.

My favourite definition of sustainability comes from Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s interview with Naomi Klein for Yes! Magazine. She explains a conversation she had with an Indigenous elder from Shoal Lake, Robin Greene: “he said the concept is backwards. You don’t develop as much as Mother Earth can handle. For us it’s the opposite. You think about how much you can give up to promote more life. Every decision that you make is based on: Do you really need to be doing that?” Check out the article here.

Tracy hiking through the misty jungle in the Cameron Highlands. The jungle here is biologically unique, since temperatures are lower here than other areas in Southeast Asia due to the elevation.

The Anthropocene, as proposed by many geologists and other scientists, is defined as the period in which humans have more impact over the environment and climate than do natural processes (though the term is widely disputed).

Since learning more about these terms (and their ambiguity) in my first Environmental Studies class during my first semester of university, the concepts have intrigued me in the context of human, nonhuman animal and plant communities.

I find the interconnections between the health and resilience of human communities and nonhuman animal and plant communities incredibly interesting.

One of the many spots I snorkeled while on Pulau Perhentian Kecil. In and around this spot, there were clownfish, unicorn fish, manta rays, sharks, sea turtles, and many other species.

For example, as I was snorkeling on the Perhentian Islands in June, I was told by a local that an intense monsoon last year destroyed most of the coral reefs around the islands. However, as I was snorkeling, though much of the coral was white and clearly dead, I was astounded by how many fish, sharks, turtles and manta rays there were even though much of their home and sustenance had been destroyed. Afterwards, I asked the boat driver about the abundance of nonhuman animals below despite much of the coral being dead, and he told me the numbers of fish and other species are increasing quickly in the area. These animals are able to adapt and find different ways to survive. The resilience of nature is astounding and inspiring! So many locals rely on these reefs to be healthy and thriving for an income for tourism, and thus proving nonhuman nature’s health is also important for human’s wellbeing.

This experience also got me thinking about the resilience of the communities I work with at MSRI. Refugees and asylum-seekers come from extraordinarily difficult, dangerous and sad situations; countries facing civil war, political instability, human rights violations, and even extreme climates causing droughts and other issues, further pushing political instability and other problems (with the number of environmental migrants on the rise). These situations cause people to flee their countries and seek refuge. In Malaysia, refugees and asylum-seekers are continuously facing hardships every day, as the Malaysian government has not signed the 1951 UN Convention on the Rights of the Refugee, thus not distinguishing refugees and asylum-seekers from illegal immigrants, resulting in their denial of work, education and healthcare rights.

Some of the girls at MSRI’s school who are always excited about singing and dancing.

Even after incredible hardships, many people in these communities are able to push through and not just survive, but thrive. At MSRI’s school, many students strive to excel in their studies, with hopes to eventually attend post-secondary to study in fields such as medicine, engineering, political science, art, and computer science. After working with many of them directly, I can tell you that they often have a smile on their face, and are eager to connect with each other and the world around them. They love to joke around: many call me “Teacher Selena Gomez”, and they love to bug me about the way I say “hiiiiiiiiiii” every time I walk into their class. Many of the students love to dance, sing, and just have fun with their friends, noting that when they are with their friends, they are able to forget many of their worries. Various other clients I have worked with at MSRI, whether it’s the women I work with for adult English classes, or the individuals I interview for MSRI’s social media, are very positive and thankful, and love to joke around with each other and me. Also, countless have been able to find ways to financially support themselves and their families while here.

Despite this, we must not forget that many people are not able to thrive during these intense hardships, due to a variety of reasons, such as mental or physical health.

Volunteer fundraisers of MSRI created this puzzle for students to put together while doing a scavenger hunt.

I am also astounded by the resilience of MSRI as an organization. MSRI has managed to keep operating for 60 years as a non-profit, even in times of hardship for the organization. This speaks a lot to the dedication and hard work of the employees and volunteers of the organization.

As said before, when either the environment or humanity is able to thrive, so is the other. One way I am combining these interests in regards to resilience and sustainability is through the Green Team. The Green Team at MSRI’s school is an environmentally-focused extracurricular club with students in Grades 6 through 9. Over 20 students in the school have joined; we have started a paper-recycling program at the school, and we are currently planning presentations the students will present to their peers on sustainability and ways they can help. We also have gone on a few field trips to the Eco Park, a jungle in the heart of KL, and plan on going to an urban farm later this month. The purpose of this club is to be empowering, and for students to recognize they too can be a part of the solution, rather than the problem. I would suggest that many of them live inherently sustainable lifestyles. Most of the students primarily use public transportation, live in apartment complexes, and consume little due to their financial situations, which are a result of refugees lacking the right to work in Malaysia.

I am so inspired and thankful to be surrounded by such strong, resilient human and nonhuman communities.

The Anthropocene and the Haze

Kaylin being a resilient trooper after being pooped on by a bird while eating her pie.

A few weeks ago, I went to Singapore for two and a half days for my last Visa run, and met up with Kaylin, a fellow CAPI intern, Mathias, a friend from my hometown, Squamish, and Sandra, another Queen Elizabeth scholar that Kaylin met through Instagram! All three of them live in Bangkok (well Sandra and Mathias have left now), and flew out for the weekend. We spent our days eating food (we ate at the cheapest Michelin Star place in the world!), exploring, and doing touristy things. One of the touristy things we did was go to the Gardens by the Bay. We bought tickets to visit the Cloud Forest Dome, the Flower Dome, and to go up to the Supergrove Walkway. After hours of walking, getting lost, and taking detours, we finally got there. Our first stop was the Cloud Forest Dome. The dome made it feel as if we were in a real cloud rainforest. We walked by waterfalls, and saw astounding plants. As we left the jungle part of the dome, we thought we had come to the end. To our (delightful) surprise, there was an Anthropocene Exhibit as you walked through at the end. The Anthropocene Exhibit was filled with information on humanity’s negative impacts on the environment, from intensive monocrops to the production, use, and disposal of single-use plastics. The exhibit also had a section on what people could do to reduce their own personal impact, yet there was no information about facing systematic issues that also must be attended on a large scale. The ironic (and sad) thing was that at the end of this exhibit, we had to walk through a gift shop! The gift shop was selling many unnecessary items made of and wrapped in plastic.

Inside the Cloud Forest Dome!
Why do we value and care for fake trees in the urban jungle, rather than real trees?

This Anthropocene exhibit got me thinking. How do we live in a world that is very human-centric (we are literally in a geological period where humans have more influence over the natural world than natural processes) yet so many people are left behind? Almost 2 billion people globally live in extreme poverty and still do not have access to clean water, (healthy) food, shelter, education, healthcare, and other necessities. Even with universal human rights, many still are unable to practice their religion, are discriminated against due to their race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, political view, age, disability, etcetera, etcetera. So many people are left behind in this world that has been (sadly) pushed to be anthropocentric, but it’s not even a world created for all people, which makes no sense.

How do we change an anthropocentric world into an eco-centric world, where everyone recognizes that all beings have the inherent right to survive and thrive?

Another ironic thing is I started writing this blog post during “the haze”. If you have ever been to Kuala Lumpur in August or September, you have probably heard of it. Due to slash and burn practices for the clearance of farm land for palm oil and pulp plantations by large corporations across the straight in Sumatra and Borneo, smoke has drifted over to Malaysia, and is sticking around. Due to climate change, these fires are getting out of control and are intensified. The haze is mostly over now due to heavy rains clearing the air, however when it doesn’t rain for a few days, the city is covered by thick smog again. At its worst, the haze sadly tested the resilience of nature, and the people of Kuala Lumpur in general. However, the climate strike in KL, as part of the Global Climate Strike, occurred on September 20th and September 21st, when the haze was at its worst. Thousands of people showed up regardless to prove their point that they will just not sit back and let entire ecosystems be destroyed and contribute to the climate emergency, as well as negatively affect human health. Those at the strike continued to lobby the government who is allowing these unsustainable practices to occur for profit.

Myself, Tracy, Hayley, and our coworker Nasha at the Global Climate Strike on September 20th.
Chris, Tracy and I at the Global Climate Strike in KL on September 21st.

Criticizing the haze from a Global North narrative is complex. How can we criticize others who are developing economically after the Global North has developed in unsustainable ways for centuries, and much of the resource extraction and creation of products in the Global South is to sell to the Global North? Personally, I think we can still lobby governments and rich corporations to push for laws and practices that will actually be sustainable, since slash and burn practices are not necessary; they are just the quickest and economically cheapest practice. These practices harm way more people than they benefit, while also harming millions of other organisms. Even without slash and burn practices, palm plantations for palm oil already drive deforestation and environmental degradation, since jungles and therefore habitats, have to be destroyed. This is because palm oil is monocropped, grown on a massive scale, and not integrated into already-present ecosystems.

The haze, and the cause behind the haze, is a (not-so) great depiction of the Anthropocene. Some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, that hold tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide in peat bogs and in forest matter, and full of endangered nonhuman animals, are destroyed just for humans to have cheap oil to put in food, hygiene products, you name it, and for pulp to be made into paper. Just like our human-centric world leaving hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people behind- this makes absolutely no sense to me.

Personal Sustainability and Ecology

Personally, it has been hard being here, and having to live a less sustainable lifestyle. I had to fly from Vancouver to Kuala Lumpur, and have flown four times since being here (to go to and from Sumatra and Phuket since I just had short periods off). Before this, I have flown less than ten times total in my lifetime, as I usually try to travel and vacation near home, besides a few holidays growing up or going backpacking a few years ago. I know sometimes we have to sacrifice things in order to work on other important projects, but it still makes me feel very guilty. I also have a few people coming to visit me while I am in Southeast Asia, which adds to the carbon footprint of me being over here. However, I am vowing to myself to not fly for at least five years when I arrive back in Canada (unless absolutely required for work or for an emergency). Me publishing this on the internet means I have to stick to this due to social pressure, right? Maybe I should also say I will try to eat no animal products whatsoever, since I am vegetarian, but not fully vegan since I sometimes give into eating ice cream, pizza, lattes from places without alternative milks, etcetera. Thank you social pressure!

Bringing my container around to bring leftovers home.

Another interesting concept that I have been working on here is my personal ecology. My friend Danielle describes personal ecology in her blog post for an Environmental Studies field school at UVic. To me, personal ecology is essentially taking care of yourself in order to sustain your momentum for activism, and when you are healthier and in good relations with those around you, your impact on the environment is lessened (also known as one of the ties between environmental sustainability and social sustainability). In addition, you may be better able to inspire others to take action.

I have been maintaining my personal ecology here through taking a lot of time for myself. Back in Canada, I am usually busy 24/7. I spend my days studying, working, volunteering, and with friends. The time I take for “myself” is when I decide to study in my room for the night, rather than study with friends or coworkers. Here, I have been spending a lot of time alone, and spending my time reading, journalling, learning more Spanish on Duolingo (wee!), eating good food, drinking lots of lattes (coconut lattes and date lattes are definitely my favourite), and watching movies on Netflix. Working with, and planning activities and events for children is exhausting, especially in a different cultural context. Taking this time for myself is essential in order to be most effective and efficient when working.

Anyhoo, thank you for reading my blog where I am trying to make sense of my own thoughts and opinions, and try to connect everything to show just how interconnected this world and global problems are!

Until next time.