Thursday, May 20, 2021

War and Peace and Sustainability

Violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis has erupted again. As I sit here trudging through my thesis, I ponder about my purpose. What is the point of anything I do when some people, somewhere, are dropping bombs on other people? What difference am I going to make by eating less meat, using less water, taking public transport, shopping with cloth bags, and all my little pro-environmental behaviours, when other people who share the same planet can detonate tons of chemical explosives without any consideration of the consequences? 

I have always wondered what were the environmental impacts of war. Because the human costs of war are so great, they triumph over any environmental considerations. But the legacy impacts of war on human health and ecosystem is a nontrivial consequence. For example, during the Vietnam War, the United States military sprayed Agent Orange to defoliate jungles and ruin cropland, resulting in millions of people being exposed to the toxicity of the herbicide, and a legacy of pollution and disruption of the ecological food chain till this day. Not to mention, nuclear blasts and testing release massive quantities of energy and radioactive particles, causing far-reaching contamination of land and water around the site. 

Named after the hair colour on Clementine...

From a cursory google search, I found one paper on the Environmental Impact of War and Terrorism, written in 2003 by a professor at the University of Reading, who is now retired. (I actually wanted to look for her when I was in Reading. I thought it would make for a fun celebrity-hunting adventure, Min Green style.) 

I wanted to chase Dr. Mannion like Min Green chased Lottie Carson

The paper discussed how war and terrorism have changed human landscapes, such as in destroyed cities, in the establishment of camps for refugees and enemies, and in graves and memorials. War and terrorism also results in lasting ecological consequences such as degradation of agricultural land, pollution of air and water, and biodiversity loss. 

Perhaps it might be more realistic to rally environmentalists around global peace-building efforts, instead. 

Peace and sustainability are both very hippie ideas

My counsellor, Liz, 是个丰满的黑人大妈 with a hearty laugh. She is also very wise. Because I am currently engaged in conflict with my supervisor, she pointed me towards a powerful little book of Conflict Transformation, which not only brought me comfort, but also got me fascinated about the transformational lens on conflict, as I can now see conflict, and the potential of this book's concept, everywhere. The writer, John Paul Lederach, believes that peace is not a static state, and that peace work is characterized by intentional efforts to address the natural ebb and flow of human relationships through nonviolent approaches. 

Conflict transformation focuses on productive change, and change can be thought of as a circle: 

The process of change, therefore, also involves things coming to a standstill, things moving backwards (3), and things going through a complete breakdown (4). These are necessary in order for things to move forward (1). 

Illustration of conflict as a process-structure, and the need to establish creative platforms for addressing content, context, and underlying patterns and structures of the relationship

It may help, then, to conceive of conflicts as episodes, or the visible expression of conflict rising within the
relationship or system. The epicenter is the web of relational patterns from which new episodes and issues emerge. Conflict transformation addresses both the episode and the epicenter of conflict. In this view, escalation, for example, may be a necessary process in pursuit of constructive change. 

Actually, this diagram reminds me of the Panarchy diagram for complex social-ecological systems, which explains the four phases of the adaptive cycle, and connects cycles in nested hierarchies:

Social relationships are indeed complex systems, I suppose, and therefore cycle through phases of growth (1), conservation (2), release (3), and reorganisation (4). 

It is difficult to pull apart the challenges for human society from the challenges for sustainability. I am brought back to my interest in the work of SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). I spent some time perusing their publications on armed conflict and peace processes, as well as on armament and disarmament, which is a major research stream. Their Yearbooks also contain an economic lens on war and peace: military spending, international arms transfer, and peace operations budgets. 

The transparent bookkeeping and analyses on armed conflict and peace work by SIPRI is a vital contribution to our collective knowledge and understanding on these issues. I feel inspired to join them. 

While the type of violence that SIPRI's work is focused on is very visible, less visible is the systemic everyday violence that creates starkly inequitable societies. As both nuclear warfare and climate change are existential threats, the Peace & Planet Network tries to draw these links, and advocates for activists in human rights, environment, and nuclear abolition to work together to address the interconnected problems with the exploitative model of the economic system. 

I don't think we can truly seek to be at peace with the planet without seeking to be at peace with one another. In the first place, advocating for collaboration on sustainability efforts involves asking others to pause or put aside what they hold dear, to care about what's important to me (sustainability). We need to acknowledge that, in activism, we are engaging in conflict about values and priorities. 

Conflict Transformation states that conflict cycles reinforce an environment of insecurity that threatens identity. And at the root of most conflicts are issues of identity, which protect a sense of self and group survival. And as the conflict transformation process-structure suggests, we must establish platforms of constructive change, address underlying patterns, and seek to increase justice. We must envision something better. 

It is Celebrate Learning Week here at UBC, under Workplace Learning Ecosystem, and I have signed up for the sessions on Conflict Engagement. There is also a monthly Conflict Theatre Community that I have recently enrolled in. The workshop on Tuesday introduced the "Argument" and the "Polarity Map" as tools for exploring the pros and cons of a dilemma. The example used was whether we should continue working from home, or return to campus. The presentation also offered some insights on some of the constructive options we have for engaging in conflict, identified some of common ways of resistance that can be ineffective or even destructive, and what alternatives there are for leaders as well as resisters to facilitate engagement. 

I love how conflict links to theatre, and how the science of rational arguments connects with the art of debate. I can't wait to learn more, and to put these ideas into practice. 

Monday, December 28, 2020

Solastalgia; This Is Not A Drill

Dear old blog, and you, an unlikely reader, I'm sorry for my silence! I was recently approached by a friend who asked if I would like to collaborate on/contribute piece(s) on the theme of Environment to an art publication, and asked me for some writing samples. I thought it might be time to revive this blog again. 

Right now I am surrounded by several unfinished books (and an unfinished thesis) nagging for my attention, and one I'd like to share with you is This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook. (I link to an upload on someone's gdrive...shhh.) Part One is a collection of honest, uncensored pieces on where we are now. I highly recommend everyone to read Douglas Rushkoff's Chapter 8: Survival of the Richest and Susie Orbach's Chapter 9: Climate Sorrow. Part Two, which I skimmed over because I'm not planning to take to the streets, is about activism tactics and stories, and a rally for civil disobedience. 

Survival of the Richest gibes at billionaires' self-centredness as well as their passiveness, declares that technology is not the panacea to our problems even if we were mega rich, and ends with a call for togetherness defining our humanity. Climate Sorrow deals with the difficult emotions - sorrow, grief, guilt, fury, and despair - that we experience when we acknowledge our crisis. 

Recently, I have connected with friends over our shared solastalgia: the distress from one's lived experience of environmental change, "the homesickness you have when you are still at home". Solastalgia (身是客) is how I feel when I think about pollution, as well as urban landscape change, in China. If you have also experienced solastalgia in this way, I would love to hear from you; please comment on this post or chat with me privately.

Extinction Rebellion has gone under my radar since COVID hit, but now that vaccines are rolling out across the globe, I'm redirecting my anxiety towards our global environmental crisis. And I hope the media will, too. 

As I begin to blog again, I won't set any grand ambitions of regular updates, only that I will do my best in my free time. 

Saturday, March 9, 2019


When I first began writing this blog for my Global Environmental Change module, I took on an "Ecofeminist" direction, which Professor Mackay actually really liked. But I decided to change it to focus on more technical stuff. When doing coursework, I always feel I need to prove that I'm smart. On top of that, I somehow felt that "hard sciences", followed by natural sciences, were more capable of proving smartness than social sciences. In other words, I believed, as many of us subconsciously do, that traditionally "masculine" subjects were more "rational", "scientific", and "objective" than traditionally "feminine" subjects, and therefore more valuable. This is clearly evidence of some institutional indoctrination. I have come to appreciate "feminine" subjects a lot more now, and would like to celebrate the connection between feminism, academia, and the environment.

But first, let's address the politics.

As a woman, whenever I talk about feminism, I fear coming across as self-righteous and holier-than-thou. There has been a lot of negative press surrounding the "feminist" label, such as criticism for promoting misandry. But I think there's a big difference between the study of political relations (including the politics - power relations - that underlie everyday social relations, like gender studies) and the practice of politics (i.e. advancing an agenda). People go into academics because they want to master the obscure. I'm not trying to advance any agenda, except that of my own opinion.

Feminist theory examines feminist politics, and women and men's social roles, experiences, and interests, in a variety of fields. In Ecofeminism, we analyse the relationship between women and nature. 

I was first introduced to Ecofeminism during my Global Environmental Politics module back in January 2017. Ecofeminism was coined in 1974 by Françoise d’Eaubonne, who argued that there are particular and significant connections between women and nature. It strongly correlates with intersectionality, a framework used to understand systemic injustices and social inequality in general. Ecofeminism relates the oppression and domination of not just women but all subordinate groups - people of colour, children, the poor - and, by extension, non-human entities - animals, land, and nature itself. 

Or should I say, herself? Ecofeminism also discusses our frequent association of nature with the feminine. From Greek Goddess Gaia to Mother Nature, spiritual ecofeminism is a branch of ecofeminism centred around recognising that the Earth is alive, that we are interconnected, and that we should be caring, compassionate and non-violent towards one another. Sounds hippie? Perhaps such ideologies seem radical to us because the persistence of capitalism and paternalism as dominant ideologies have caused culture to become separated from nature.

Cultural ecofeminists contended that women have a more intimate relationship with nature because of their gender role as nurturer and the intimate biological involvement in reproductive cycles. Advancing the feminist movement and embracing feminine values would thus improve our interactions with environmental systems. Hence, there is advantage in associating nature with femininity, in that this inspires women to take up environmental and feminism causes. In practice, many women put themselves on the front-lines of grassroots environmental leadership, from ecologist Rachel Carson, to women-of-colour activists against environmental racism. More recently, Greta Thunberg led young people to take to the streets for climate action.

On the other hand, feminist eco-criticism, or radical ecofeminism, focuses more on intersectional issues. Early ecofeminists determined that solving the injustices to either women or the environment issues would require undoing the social status of both. By the 1980s, radical ecofeminism emerged, contending that the patriarchal society equates nature and women in order to subjugate, commodify and exploit both. The phrase "Rape of Mother Earth" reflects this notion. Therefore, to treat both injustices, these critics believe that this association must be challenged.

I think that the crux of intersectional issues is really a classic Marxist struggle between the "haves" and the "have-nots", and the various methods the "haves" employ to make the "have-nots" stay that way. Capitalism is public enemy number one. But this deserves a separate post of its own.

One could get lost in these debates. At least we can all agree that there's nothing more apt for my blog theme!

What brought me back to this topic was this article I just read on the role of bicycles in promoting women's suffrage. Cycling is a great mode of transportation, which is also eco-friendly, and deserves a separate post of its own as well!

Happy International Women's Day!

Monday, March 4, 2019


Christiana Figueres (former executive secretary of the UNFCCC) gave a talk in Oxford: she said that we, as individuals, should prioritise and do these four things to combat climate change:
  1. eat less meat
  2. use public transport or cycle
  3. find out what you're investing in or where your money is, to avoid supporting high-carbon assets
  4. vote

We hear about the first two, and the last one, quite often these days. #3 not so much. I want to talk a bit about that today.

When I first moved to Canada, I opened a bank account under a major bank, because it seemed easier, more straightforward, more reliable, and was what I'm used to. (They also offered a one-time $300 bonus. Hey, free money.)

After I started accumulating some savings, I felt really possessive about my money. (It's my money! What are they doing with it?) 

I then opened an account with a Credit Union. It was easier, more straightforward, and more reliable than I imagined. Plus, the service was great - very personal, because they cater to a smaller customer base. There were a few inconveniences compared to the big bank, but there were also a few other benefits. Eventually, I made a complete switch from the bank to the CU

Here's a comparison between banks and CU's, and a step-by-step for opening an account, provided UBC.

Basically, CU's are not-for-profit, co-operative (e.g. I own $5 of shares in my CU), and are dedicated to investing in the local economy and serving the community (e.g. my CU donates to the local food bank). I feel much more comfortable keeping my money here. The hassle was worth it.

This article ends on a skeptical note regarding the banking debate: "A lot of what passes for sustainability is actually nothing more than public relations". Which is another way of saying greenwashing (see: this post).

While I acknowledge that the more profits a company is making, the more it's able to invest in PR campaigns to improve its image, I am completely unsurprised that big banks invest in big oil. (Read: this article.) When I was at UCL, the student-led protest group "Fossil Free" was very active and vocal about the imperative for the university to divest from fossil fuels.

Even if Fossil Free couldn't convince the Provost, I'm always grateful for some solidarity. After all, standing together makes all the difference.

Just like if all of us moved our money somewhere better. Your dollar vote matters, including the passive ones sitting around

Where do you stash your cash?

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Protesting Plastic Packaging

A while ago I posted this: 

It reminds us of the hierarchy of the 3R's, and suggests a few new ones: Refuse  Reduce  Reuse →  Recycle  Rot.

Now, we can refuse disposable packaging used for other things by refusing the thing itself. (Yours truly once ordered a VR Google Cardboard from the famously-packaging-excessively-Amazon that yours truly never used... Just an example of what could be refused.) But food is something we can't live without.

Check out this aesthetic animation by kurzgesagt on the plastic pollution. 

I've been trying to cut down on my plastic waste when I shop for groceries. Although this study shows that you would need to use your cotton bag 7100 times before it has a lower environmental footprint than single-use plastic bags, I bring my own canvas bag, my own containers for nut refills and my own plastic bags for packaging individual vegetables, and I avoid most packaged products. A lot of vegetables come in packaging; I always choose the loose ones, and I never tear out a plastic bag for them. (Meat spoils faster, and needs constant refrigeration and packaging; luckily I've cut it out!)

I haven't found unpackaged corn. :(

There are a few issues here. Firstly, I prefer fresh produce, and I assume that less energy has been used compared to processed options. However, this study found that more fresh broccoli is wasted in the kitchen (20%) than if it had been processed (5%), which could result in a higher environmental impact. Still, another study found that despite processed food reducing retail-level food waste, the greenhouse gas emissions from and material and energy investments required for processing (e.g. canning) and refrigeration (e.g. freezing) mean that fresh green beans and blueberry and mussels are the better option for the environment. (On this note, I highly recommend using winter as a fridge, as my 姥姥 always does.) 

Meet this guy's fridge.

Secondly, a lot of fresh produce bruise easily (such as spinach and strawberries), which means they have to be packaged to facilitate transport and protect freshness. Food waste research found a tradeoff between reducing packaging and reducing food waste: packaging accounts directly for a small portion (10%) of the total impacts of food production, and effects of switching to recyclable packaging is negligible compared to the effects of reducing food waste. The recommended solution is not to increase packaging though, but for correct packaging and effective distribution. 

All these comparisons were done using the LCA. For those of you who don't know, LCA stands for life cycle assessment, which is an internationally recognised method for accounting for the sum of all environmental impacts at every stage of a product's life cycle.

I've also been trying to cut down on single-use containers. At my university, almost all food is displayed or served in single-use containers and utensils. Maybe the small student population doesn't justify installing central dishwashing. (This study found that the breakeven point for 1 ceramic cup is 39 uses to have the same environmental impact as 39 paper cups, and 1006 uses for foam cups.) Anyway, when I buy food, I always offer to use my own container. They do give a discount for that, which I find encouraging. 

Towards getting the most and best product using the least disposable packaging, meal kits are the worst. A while ago, I couldn't resist a meal kit promotion and ordered a week's worth, but after seeing all the packaging that went into it, I felt guilty and ridiculous. London's Abel and Cole used slightly less packaging because they loved to include hardy root and stem vegetables, but all the condiments came in tiny amounts, individually packaged. 

I sometimes wonder if my protest is too silent to be heard. But I've been challenged for my (unusual?) practices, so I know that people are noticing: I was dispensing nuts into my own container when the store manager stopped by and told me to use the plastic bags they provide; I ordered a pizza at uni and told them to put it on my plate, but they told me to "just take a [paper] plate! It's free!" 

And I'll admit that there are "bigger fish to fry". (Stay tuned for that, I'll talk about banking next!) But it gives me a little comfort to feel like I'm doing a small part to protest our industrialised ways.

I'm interested to learn what YOU do for everyday sustainability!

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

and then we'll be okay

Sometimes I think about the future (or lack thereof) of humanity and wonder what's the point of anything. And sometimes I sink into paralysis. 

Some time ago, my boyfriend sent me this.

Meanwhile on Facebook...

Sunday, January 13, 2019


Last week, I explored the reaction to environmental crisis from a place of fear

What if we come from a place of empathy?

That was hard to watch. 😭 

This video of a turtle with a straw stuck up its nose was quite frequently referenced when the plastic straw campaign first took off. 

Plastic straws suck!

I remember friends all over Facebook posting about saying "NO" to plastic straws and wondering, "why the sudden hype?" 

Nas Daily's hot take on the plastic straw dilemma echoed my thoughts. (Linked: Facebook video that I can't embed here.) In short, he points out hypocrisies in the environmental PR policies of some big companies. Specifically,
  1. he criticises McDonalds for banning plastic straws but still using plastic spoons, cup covers, and other disposable plastic;
  2. then goes on to criticise McDonalds for wanting to save turtles, while being responsible for  millions of other animals dying every year - pigs, cows... basically, the meat we eat. 
  3. He calls this selective empathy
Meat?                                       Pet?

Selective empathy is when we care about some plastic, some animals, and some humans. Nas concludes that saving one plastic straw is good (Practice the new and improved 5R's! Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.), but caring about the actual problem is even better. 

Yes, the plastic straw campaign could encourage people to begin to care more about environmental issues. On the other hand, it's also a form of virtue signalling, or greenwashing. 

Back to empathy.

WWF trapped a man indoors for a week and filmed his experience as they introduced pollution, global warming, and habitat loss to his living quarters. (Linked: another Facebook video.) The man, Francis, narrates his experiences, which helps us empathise with the suffering we have brought upon wildlife. The video invites us to empathise with our future too: "But we can't leave the planet."

Brené Brown on Empathy

Perhaps, in order to better respond to our self-sabotaging trajectory of damage to the environment, we would do better to feel it first. 

War and Peace and Sustainability

Violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis  has erupted again . As I sit here trudging through my thesis, I ponder about my purpose. ...