I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak on the “Going Green” Panel during the Young Leaders Forum at the 6th World Islamic Economic Forum on 18th May 2010 in Kuala Lumpur. Below is the text of my presentation during the session.
Good Afternoon, everyone. The title of my presentation today is “Curbing a Culture of Careless Consumption”. I would like to start off with a few words by Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Review on Climate Change. In a recent blog post, Stern noted that
“the two great challenges of the 21st century are the battle against poverty and [not just climate change but] the management of climate change… If we fail on either one of them, we will fail on the other.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, I think you would agree with me that Poverty and Environmental issues such as natural disasters and resource scarcity have all existed even before we realised what climate change was all about. But the important difference here is that the effects of climate change and the superficial responses taken to address it, exacerbate the risk of environmental disasters and thereby strengthen the feedback loop between poverty and environmental degradation.
As mentioned earlier by Andrew, multi-stakeholder cooperation – amongst governments, businesses, civil society groups and communities – is vital to address such issues. But this is often easier said than done, as various parties bring to the discussion table their own pre-dispositions and interests. Formulating a consensus on issues then becomes difficult because they don’t understand each other (and sometimes refuse to understand each other). What multi-stakeholder cooperation really needs is a common foundation based on holistic understanding and commitment to responses that are needed for long term success.
This common foundation I think can be found in the theme of consumption, which affects all parties right down to the level of the individual. Consumption (and in turn the production) of goods and resources are part and parcel of economic growth and development, which is of course what many developing countries aspire to achieve to alleviate poverty. Higher level of economic development corresponds with higher consumption levels. However, it has come to the point where much of this consumption is just careless. Careless consumption is excessive and selfish. It is careless towards the environment, and careless towards the future of communities.
Some of us here are fortunate enough to have our basic utilities bill subsidized ( or in some cases given for free) by our governments. And there are others in this room whose governments have engaged in what has come to be termed as “land grabbing”. In a bid to sustain current levels of economic growth and consumption patterns, many developed and industrialising countries have resorted to land acquisition in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia to produce resources to meet their domestic demands of goods. – in other words, poor countries with their already limited resources, are helping to sustain the economies and consumption patterns of their wealthier counterparts, rather than their own.
Cheap mass-produced goods have also allowed lower income stratas of society to partake consumerism –for example, the Sachet product industry. Instead of buy a big bottle of branded shampoo, less well-to-do folks can buy them in small amounts in plastic sachets. This phenomenon has actually contributed to an increased amount of thrash.
Andrew also mentioned the increasing population in urban areas. While cities such as Jakarta and Manila are centres of increasing economic growth, they are also the sites for increasing economic inequalities, and coincidentally the regions’ most vulnerable areas to climate change. This picture shows a row of slum houses along the Ciliwung River in Jakarta. The lack of proper waste disposal, most of which has ended up in the rivers (including those plastic sachets), has actually been cited as a contributing factor to the disastrous floods in Jakarta in recent years, and also the damage caused by Typhoon Ketsana in the Philippines – wherein the thrash clogs up the drainage system.
I’m not saying that we should stop people from consuming more, but rather its about getting them to consume more sustainably. And this feeds into the extensive literature available on changing your habits, doing simple things like reduce, reuse and recycle; reducing your carbon footprint, getting out there to appreciate nature, etc.. (by the way, for those of you that haven’t checked out www.storyofstuff.com, I suggest you do as it gives a quick overview on consumption and how the materials economy works).
But here’s the thing, environmentalists have been saying this over and over…but why is there still this massive inertia to make the change?
My answer to this, is the lack of engagement. Specifically there is a need to engage those that remain apathetic towards environmental issues, but also groups of ppl you would conventionally not consider to be environmental advocates. I’m thinking particularly, influential local community leaders, and in many Muslim countries and communities, this includes your Islamic clerics and scholars.
Another hat which I wear, is being part of the Young Association of Muslim Professionals in Singapore. Last year, we published a book on Muslim Youths in Singapore. In the chapter I contributed, I had conducted a simple survey amongst a group of about 200 youths to get their perspectives on environment. What was interesting from the survey was that 90% of them said they would like to see more action taken by religious leaders and scholars in promoting environmental awareness.
The good news is that people have started to talk about it. Environmental advocacy amongst Muslims has taken off pretty well in the US and in the UK (as mentioned by Omar) as well as some pilot projects in Indonesia. But overall, we are far from reaching that critical mass amongst Muslims.
I’d just like to end with reasons why it is important that we achieve this critical mass.
- Firstly, Globalisation and all its complexities have demonstrated to us that environmental issues are just as important as the bread and butter issues such as employment and education
- Secondly, Curbing Consumption is not alien to Islam. In fact it’s not alien to any of the other major religions like Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism. The environment is the world’s shared resource, and this only serves as an important base for greater intercultural and interfaith collaboration and cooperation.
- And thirdly, and I think most importantly – It’s about having foresight. We often hear the talk of the Muslim world as being lagging behind with regards to development, and always having to play catch-up. It is therefore vital for us to be thinking about contemporary issues such as the environment (which is what the rest of the world is already talking about). And if we’re going to just stick to the business as usual model, and disregard sustainability, it might very well be the case that once we’ve reached those higher levels of development, the rest of the world would have probably already naturalised sustainability into their everyday lives and moved on to other issues. If this is the case, then we’re back to square one where we’re still playing catch up but without any option to save our planet.
And with that, I thank you.