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Admitting Humanity’s Exploitative Ties with Nature: Penang’s Pursuit of Sustainable Development


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by Ooi Kee Beng

Globalisation’s Historical Consequence

The atypical ambition to make human development sustainable would not have come about in our time, if not for the pervasive sense we all feel that human insatiability has gone too far. Human interference—or disruption, to use a fashionable word—with the processes of recovery and resilience of the Earth’s ecosystem as a whole has been happening fast and furious over the last 200 years.

The crossing of the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian oceans in the late 15th century heralded an era of tumultuous clashes of civilisations, as peoples and systems not meant to meet in any immediate fashion were brought together—like the two ends of a sheet of paper folded together; like the two poles of a magnet curved to touch.

The exchange of goods which followed was more piracy than trade, the meeting of governments more conquest than diplomacy, and the movement of peoples more enslavement than exploration. The forces unleashed by these  painful meetings of humans from different ends of the Earth would begin the destruction of civilisations, and about 100 years ago, we saw the last of these ancient civilisations crash to the ground. By the middle of the 20th century, global  politics and economics had settled into a struggle between two poles of power, each propelled by its own ideology. After 1990, a unipolar world arose. Today, we seem to be entering a world with multiple poles—but this time, these are fully cognisant of the workings of each other, and more given to convergence than to divergence.

This fateful fusion of humanity is what we call globalisation. Getting here, humanity had pushed its capacity to unravel the mysteries of Mother Nature and to harness once-unimaginable sources of energy for its indiscriminate purposes, and forced a gathering of all humanity at the feet of overwhelming modes of production and of consumption unthinkable to anyone even a generation ago.

The means for creating this One-World, we must now admit, have also been highly destructive for Mother Nature. Species disappear today at a pace faster than we care to imagine, and the ecosystem within which humans can best survive is being destabilised by the processes sustaining modern human life. Air and water; coasts and continents; rivers and oceans; fowl and fish; there is nothing on Earth today whose processes of rejuvenation are not badly disrupted.

Sustainability is Not a Job for the Conservative-minded

As is their wont, humans talk most urgently about what is most glaringly missing. And it was just when the apparently unipolar world reached its apex that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were formulated, and by the United Nations, no less.

The question we need to ask is: “Can the modes of thought and of production which must bear responsibility for destabilising Mother Nature’s recycling processes—as much as they take credit for our heightened productivity and the development of human knowledge—be relied on to take us out of this global crisis?”

“Can the modes of thought and of production which must bear responsibility for destabilising Mother Nature’s recycling processes—as much as they take credit for our heightened productivity and the development of human knowledge—be relied on to take us out of this global crisis?”

Ensuring sustainability without revising our modes of production and consumption, without reinforcing our sense of agency and urgency, and without re-educating our young and ourselves seems rather superficial and disingenuous an undertaking. It certainly underestimates the problems we are facing.

To conserve the Earth and to keep it fit for life, human or otherwise, is not a job for the conservative-minded.

To be sure, the 17 SDGs are meant to be inclusive, and therefore holistic in approach. The first step being collectively taken in achieving these goals is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This simplifies the list to three goals (basically Goals 1, 10 and 13): the ending of poverty; minimising inequalities; and combating climate change.

In essence, most of the other goals can be sorted easily under the trio; and of course, in reaching for these goals, “Goal 17: Partnerships”, is achievable by default. What this last goal seeks is the coming together of “governments, civil society, scientists, academia and the private sector”, to quote the United Nations.

Public Agency in Achieving the SDGs: Penang2030

So what do the SDGs look like at the local level, when taken seriously as a platform for policy-making?

Using the SDGs as framework, the Penang State Government recently formulated the Penang2030 vision aimed at achieving a “Family-focused green and smart state that inspires the nation”. As stated in Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow’s introduction, Penang2030 is “an invitation, […] an opening of the door to the private sector, to civil society, to academicians and to individuals, to participate in discussions with the government and in the formulation of projects adapted to Penang’s special conditions”. In short, the goal is to democratise policy-making in Penang. Getting societal groups to rise to the occasion and to participate in forming the future of the state will be his greatest challenge. As Mr Chow noted:

“Democracy is something to be savoured on a daily basis—as empowering of the individual, and as an exercise in personal freedom. Its players are not political parties and politicians alone, but are people in general. In order to make Democracy a way of life, public space must therefore be widened, and not only through freedom of speech, progressive and scientific education, a competent and responsible mass media, and transparency and predictability in the rule of law, but as a cultural and gratifying experience.”

To be convinced, people need to act more, and by acting, they become more convinced. That is perhaps the essence of Goal 17. Without that, the rest drifts apart.

This article is based on a keynote speech given at the ASEAN Australian Education Dialogue conference held in Penang on 19 November 2019. An earlier version of this article was published in December 2019 in The Edge Malaysia. 

Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute, Malaysia. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World.

This article first appeared in the print version of HESB Issue #07. Click here to read the full, online issue.

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