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An Inconvenient Practice

A recent video released by British diver Rich Horner, showed him swimming through the waters of Bali. Only he wasn’t just swimming amongst the exotic sea life, he was also swimming through an astounding amount of rubbish and plastic that had covered the sea so overwhelmingly it almost seemed as though there was more plastic in the sea than fish.

Shockingly, this state of affairs could well become reality. 

While Horner’s viral video is eye-opening, it isn’t the first of its kind to surface. All across the internet, you will find videos of people and animals swimming in polluted oceans, oil spills, sea creatures which have consumed plastic particles, burned and injured orangutans being rescued from fiery infernos they once called home, and so much more.

If that isn’t bad enough,  we have also experienced unprecedented weather conditions and natural disasters seem to be commonplace. Our overuse of the earth’s natural resources and careless disposal of waste has contributed to climate change, the dissolution of the natural world and an all-round negative impact on the environment.

The facts certainly don’t paint a pretty picture.

Globally, the impact of climate change has had catastrophic results, with millions of people being displaced by disasters from 2008 to 2016, of which there are a staggering 24.2 million new displacements by disasters in 2016 alone. Evidently, weather-related hazards, in particular, storms, brought on the majority of all new disaster displacements in 2016.

Frighteningly, these numbers are set to rise.

According to some estimates, the ratio of fish to plastic in the ocean will be 1:1 by the year 2050, with the amount of plastic possibly even outnumbering fish populations. Some of the predictions in Al Gores critically acclaimed 2006 film about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, such as rising sea levels and the melting of the Antarctic ice sheets, have also become realities. 

How the Conversation is Evolving

Regardless of this picture of doom and gloom, all may not be lost!

Environmental efforts have started to gain more ground in communities all over the world. With information and resources becoming more accessible than ever before, communities have been incorporating eco-friendly habits into their everyday life. Governments around the world have also been implementing policies to help minimise their carbon footprints. In 2017, Kenya imposed strict bans on the use of plastic bags. While not without its own difficulties in implementation, the ban has seen significant success in the country. It has even indirectly improved aspects of sanitation in Kenya, with the nation’s citizens refraining from creating “flying toilets” (Google them, they are horrifying as they sound).  

The rise of the “zero waste” movement has also become popular with people adopting lifestyles that produce little to no waste. Prominent figures such as Bea Johnson and Lauren Singer are even able to fit years’ worth of trash into a single mason jar. Accordingly, the mason jar itself has become a symbol of “zero waste.”

Environmentalist Lauren Singer was able to fit 4 years’ worth of trash into a single mason jar. Image Credit: Lauren Singer

In Singapore, you can find community groups such as Journey to Zero Waste Life in Singapore, BYO Singapore and Freeganism in Singapore which provide people with resources from like-minded individuals who are all working towards a greater goal of reducing waste.

Southeast Asia has its own versions of “zero waste” trailblazers such as Singaporean Khee Shihui and Malaysian couple Tin Fong Yun and Lau Tzeh Wei. Khee has been documenting her efforts to avoid single-use plastic through a series she calls “Tabao Tales” on Facebook where she shares her experiences with takeaway or tabao-ingfood and drinks in Singapore. In the last few months, she has even formulated a game she calls the Tabao Tally that tracks the amount of single-use items she has saved by bringing her own reusable containers.

Khee’s “Tabao Kit,” which she brings along with her, to carry her takeout. Image Credit: Khee Shihui

Tin Fong Yun, Lau Tzeh Wei and their dog have been living “zero waste” since January of 2016 and through careful planning and lifestyle changes, have managed to completely eradicate waste from their lives. Tin Fong Yun also runs the Facebook group, Happy Zero Trashwhere she documents her life as a “zero waster” and shares resources with a community of like-minded people.

For Khee, the catalyst for change came from learning about the irreversible environmental damage that has been inflicted on the Great Barrier Reef. As a recreational diver, who enjoys the wonders of marine life, learning about the damage that had been caused to the reef was shocking. Since then she has made a conscious effort to reduce her plastic use and shares her progress on social media. 

It is not all rainbows and unicorns though as these efforts attract a fair number of sceptics.

One just has to look at the comment sections of popular media outlets which feature stories on activists and institutions to see that not everyone is convinced of the effectiveness of these initiatives. UnPackt, Singapore’s first package-free store, has seen many on social media platforms denounce its efforts as unrealistic and ineffective online. Globally, climate change deniers are plenty, with many believing that the situation is certainly not as bad as what is being presented. Acts such as the United States President Donald Trump, pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement certainly do little to help. 

 Art and the Environment

The conversation on the environment and mans relationship with the natural world in the arts has been a long and ongoing one.

Artists all over the world often incorporate environmental issues and the degradation of the natural world into their work. For example,  Agnes Denes and Dennis Oppenheim have long been a part of the discussion on the environment.

In Southeast Asia, this conversation has seen a number of highlights in the last couple of years. Artistsuch as Charles Lim and environmental groups such as Greenpeace have used art as a platform to foreground issues plaguing our planet. Charles Lim is, of course, a prominent presence, using his voice as an artist and former sailor to spotlight our disconnect with our seas, and the use and abuse of our physical environment. He examines the biophysical, political and psychic contours of Singapore through his work SEA STATE which was first presented at the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale, and most recently at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore.

Charles Lim Yi Yong, SEA STATE, which was exhibited between 30 April – 10 July 2016 at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, installation view. Image Credit: NTU CCA Singapore

In 2017, Greenpeaces “plastic whale” art installation was set up on a beach in the Philippines. The work showed a decomposing whale which had tons of plastic waste in its system. The site-specific work was created in response to the Philippines chairing the ASEAN Summit that year and to help highlight the need to address plastic pollution in the ocean. Tragically,  life seems to have imitated art recently, with the devastating news of a whale dying in southern Thailand after swallowing 80 plastic bags. 

Zen Teh is another artist who has turned the spotlight on environmental issues. Through the media of photography, painting and installation, Teh explores how an increasingly man-made world has meant that people are losing their connection to the natural environment. With both public and private spaces in Singapore becoming more planned and constructed, our idea of what nature looks like today have evolved from notions of the past.

Tehs work, Garden State Palimpsest, which was recently shown at OH! Open House in Emerald Hill and at the Alliance Francaise, features photographic sculptures which had been created based on the artists interpretation of accounts recorded from people who had grown up in kampungs or villages surrounded by nature. In her art-making process, Teh notes challenges in finding similar types of environments as those referred to by her interviewees, a fact which re-emphasises her message of our disconnect with nature.

An example of one of Teh’s photographic sculptures. Image Credit: Zen Teh

Teh’s aim is simple.

She hopes to draw the viewer’s attention in, making him or her enjoy looking at the works as a representation of nature. Accordingly, such a viewer might then have “a longing, attraction and desire” towards nature, wanting to “conserve and share it with others as well.

Tan Zi Xis Plastic Ocean has also been a huge highlight in recent years with the art installation travelling to multiple countries. While presented a little differently in each location, the concept remains the same. Plastic Ocean helps to give audiences an idea of what its like to be a sea creature making its way through an ocean filled with tonnes of trash. Its overwhelming and eye-opening, to say the least:

Tan Zi Xi’s work Plastic Ocean (2016), which was presented at the 2016 Imaginarium show at Singapore Art Museum. Image credit: Singapore Art Museum

Her work has been shown at the Singapore Art Museum and the Sassoon Docks Art Project in Mumbai. Plastic Ocean takes its inspiration from her earlier work An Effort Most Futile in which she explores the true scale of pollution and destruction in our world and the seemingly huge task of reversing the damage that humans have caused.

During Jakarta Art Week in 2017, Museum MACAN showcased the work Washing the River by Yin Xiuzhen. First performed in Chengdu, China in 1995, Washing the River was a response by the artist to the state of the Funan River, known as Chengdus ‘Mother River,’ an essential source of water to the communities that have lived alongside it for generations. Yin froze water from the river into blocks before inviting people to symbolically (and literally!) ‘wash’ the river with brushes.

Similarly, in Jakarta, she froze water from the nearby Pesanggrahan River, a large and important river that runs through the city, and invited audiences to wash the blocks of ice. In doing so she highlighted the need for communities to be conscious of the environment around them:

Yin Xiuzhen’s work 
Washing the River (2017). This 
performance, First Sight took place on 12 August 2017, at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (Museum MACAN). Image Credit: Museum MACAN

Coming back closer to home, Han Sai Pors Black Forest at the 2016 Singapore Biennale featured a gallery space that was filled with pieces of burnt and stained black wood and charcoal trunks:

A close-up of Han’s work

With her work, Han highlights the changing landscape of Southeast Asias forests and how they have been affected by deforestation through man-made forest fires.

What can we do?

While art may not necessarily bring about direct change,  it has always served the larger purpose of making people think about the issues that are presented to them and encourages dialogue that could then help bring about change.

In addition to ground-up initiatives, institutional and community initiatives are imperative in making a difference. As Khee Shihui succinctly puts it:

Government policies and legislation certainly will be helpful. Countries are already taking steps to ban plastic straws and styrofoam packaging, or requiring shoppers to pay for plastic bags in supermarkets.

Annie Leonard, Director of Greenpeace USA, has even spoken about how important it is for large corporations to take more responsibility in tackling the issues of non-biodegradable single-use plastics. She offers the rather depressing view that ground-up efforts can only take us so far. 

If you remain undeterred nonetheless and wish to make a personal commitment to the cause, there are a number of things which may be done: 

Take your daily coffee for example. If you are the type of person that buys coffee before work every morning, maybe consider bringing along a reusable mug instead of using the plastic or styrofoam cups?  Or take it a step further and follow in Khees footsteps — bring out a full tabaokit that includes a tote bag, metal straw, chopsticks, lunch box, larger cup for cold drinks, KeepCup for hot drinks and a handkerchief for personal use instead of tissues.

Whatever one chooses to do, it is undeniable that the need to address climate change and the damage to our environment is an immediate and urgent one.

So next time youre out, think about whether you truly need that straw in your drink.

I know I will.


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