A fictional, but at the same time very real situation reflecting beliefs and dynamics in my family around the issue of climate change.
Written by Terese, Singapore
I slammed the door shut and broke down in tears. What was wrong with her? Why was she so cold, so rude, so unreasonable?
Why didn’t anyone have my same passion for the climate? Why can’t my parents stop criticizing veganism? Why can’t they see the obvious link between the environment and social justice?
I hugged my little brown bear and sobbed bitterly for a long time. Each time I ran out of tears, my thoughts jolted back to grip me and I started to cry again. After a long time, when I had no more energy, I fell asleep.
The next day, a letter was on my table, addressed to me. From my mother. A stone formed in my throat instantly. I wanted to rip it into pieces, because I was tired of arguing, of shouting, of being caught in the stupid cycle of hurt she had designed to trap me.
But another part of me was itching to know what she had to say. Cautiously holding it at an arm’s length, I peeled it open and began to read.
I’m trying hard to understand you, but it’s difficult when you don’t try to understand me.
I’m sorry if you feel I don’t understand you. To be honest, the environmental movement is tiring to even think about, and seems kind of elitist to me. Many environmentalists overreact, telling everyone that the way of life they are living right now is wrong, it makes people feel small and guilty for doing nothing wrong at all.
You say that eating meat is bad for the planet, and you’ve highlighted beef as a particular enemy. But dietary guidelines also advise us to eat a palm-sized worth of meat a day. Meat is not your enemy, meat is protein and strength. Please don’t deprive yourself of key nutrients, you’re already thin and I want you to grow bigger.
And our car. Papa and I have taken years to build up our driving skills, we’ve saved up money to buy a car and maintain it, and we’ve done all this so that all of us can enjoy the convenience of travel. That’s why I feel frustrated every time you shoot us for driving, and you tell us we must take the bus or the train. You’ll criticize our travelling and cite pollutants as a key reason why we need to stop. But haven’t you considered – what impact will we make? Isn’t everyone else doing the same? And when you really think about it, you’ll see the impact is really zero, because our societies are designed to run that way for the greater good. And when you’ll realize that, hopefully you’ll see the individual impact on us: making unnecessary sacrifices, increasing travel time for busy individuals, causing body strain from carrying heavy groceries.
The list of things you – forgive me – badger us with goes on. Liquid soap with microbeads. Disposable plastics. Shopping for clothes. Every single normal thing I do now seems tainted with sin. I’m sorry… but don’t you think this is a step too far? Can we forget all of this, and just live a normal, happy life like a close-knit family?
Year after year, politicians say, “Let’s decrease emissions,” and politicians being politicians, no one does it because it really is too difficult, and too much unnecessary sacrifice. It’s like the individual impact I mentioned earlier: everyone knows that their efforts wouldn’t count in the larger picture, and that in turn leads to collective inaction on the climate. No one wants to sacrifice the economy. There are so many other immediate societal issues to be concerned about, it makes little sense to spend so much on those of the future anyway. Even if you do take action, you’re still in Singapore, where we only contribute 0.11% of global carbon emissions. So how much of an influence will you be? We can’t do anything about it. It’s sad, but this is reality and I think you need to accept that.
That’s why I see it pointless, really. We can die anytime, anyway, and what matters is the quality of your life, not the quantity. I’m not doubting the scale of the climate crisis. I believe scientists who say it’s getting pretty bad. But worrying about the future and its possible problems puts us all in needless unhappiness at the present moment. We shouldn’t need to worry so much about tomorrow, it will only add unnecessary mental stress. I wish you’ve spoken with me before engaging in climate activism.
We’ve lost that magical bond we had between us for so long. I know you’re a good girl, and I want to understand you better. It’s okay if you disagree with everything I’ve just said, because I know you’ve got reasons of your own that I don’t yet know. Let me know what you think.
Lots of love and hope,
I felt my emotions swirl in eddying currents within me. The words reflected sadness and frustration, but her desire to reconnect and understand melted the layer of hardened anger that caked my heart.
Thank you for the letter.
I get what you mean when you say that the environmental movement is frustrating and tiring. It calls for an upending of how traditional societies function, a radical idea indeed. I’m sorry if I made it sound critical of everything we do as a family – driving, eating, even bathing. I truly didn’t mean it that way – I was just positively aghast at the impact our lives were having on the environment, you know? On wildlife, on our forests, on people?
There’s so much bad going on, that’s why we need a radical restructuring of our broken systems. For far too long, we’ve used the dollar to woo businessmen and entrepreneurs all over the world, hence boosting the economy – resulting, by no coincidence, the throwaway lifestyle; in the unending need to keep on drilling and mining and digging and concretizing everything… a cycle of environmental depredation, and a destruction to the lives of vulnerable communities.
That’s the core essence of the environmental movement – an intolerance for social injustice. Climate justice is not all about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If it was I’ll have given up long ago. Climate justice is instead a human rights issue, fighting for an end to mindless profiteering and equal environmental rights for all.
Like the coronavirus pandemic, the climate crisis is an international one as well. It demands the radical idea of cooperation and mutual respect. Because hate and intolerance have nurtured a climate of fear and uncertainty, as we can see in the stockpiling of nuclear weapons and fighting over foreign lands for military bases. It tells us to focus on what’s important – ending the crisis and restoring human rights as well as protecting workers in a just transition.
There are some things we’re bound to disagree over, and that is completely fine. But in areas that we do agree in, we must quickly work to support each other. We can encourage cross-border low-carbon investment, bring top scientific talents together to advance low-carbon technology, and advise each other’s climate policies.
I also get your concerns of the impact that we make, given we fall under just 0.11% of emissions. But focusing on that number doesn’t make sense, because the ideas and influence we have on the world doesn’t amount to 0.11%. There’s no point considering things from just the environmental perspective, so let’s remember to look at the humanitarian aspect – how many lives will we be helping to protect, how many more people will be living in cleaner air? Let’s work together towards climate justice for all.
You’ve spent the last thirty years volunteering with the poor. You’ve got a big heart for vulnerable communities. You love your daily thirty-minute walks in nature. I know deep inside you, there is an intolerance for injustice and a strong desire to conserve our natural wonders, like I do. And the crazy thing is that we can be part of the solution, that’s why I’m a climate activist. I love you Mama. I’m happy I can talk to you again too. If you’ll like, join me in my next beach cleanup?
I folded the letter and placed it on her drawing table. My heart was racing. What would she say to it?
The next day I received another letter.
It was amazing reading your letter. In our long silences, I had thought you were being idealistic and immature, but it turns out I’m so wrong. You’ve grown up so much and I’m proud of you.
I had never thought about the environment from that dimension. I had seen environmental issues in a binary way, where it’s either people’s needs or the environment that needs to be sacrificed. Sometimes it did make me a little sad, but I’d always brush that thought away quickly – afraid that I might become overly concerned, swing to the other side of the see-saw, and start forgetting that people’s needs come first! Indeed, a popular misconception of the climate movement is that it dictates how people should live their lives. It’s interesting knowing that it’s simply about the fairer distribution of resources, a globally coordinated response to ensuring the needy are not left behind. Now I understand why you find it compelling.
Just ruminating some thoughts, I think it will do the world some good to look past our national affiliations, our protectionistic mindsets, our political ideologies… and look at what really matters. We all share the same goals of advocating for justice.
I never realized, me and you, more closely connected in our beliefs than I thought we were, and I must say – it’s a liberating feeling. I always identified myself as a Conservative, and you a Liberal. But I shouldn’t think along these divisions anymore, because they hardly help except to polarize our communities in so many different issues. It also makes the environmental movement appear exclusive to Liberals, when it is not. After all, I believe all of us do share the fundamental belief of protecting the climate to improve lives and eradicating injustice in this world.
Yes, sweetheart, I’ll join you in your next beach cleanup activity. I can’t say I’ll be a climate activist like you now though, don’t get your hopes too high! I don’t think I’ll stop driving, or give up meat entirely, either, but I’ll try, and be happy to do anything together with you.