Monday, 11 November 2019

Letter to the Editor:Environmental Education Not A Substitute For Real Action


Kedah Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mukhriz Tun Mahathir’s recent announcement that Kedah will soon establish 36 eco-schools is one that would be received with good cheer by most Malaysians, as this move appears to affirm Malaysia’s position as a country that is pro-science, pro-environment, and serious about climate change. 

As we applaud this initiative, we must remember that environmental education can never be a substitute for real action. Those with the economic and political leverage to make a difference and to improve the state of Malaysia’s natural environment are not taking the necessary climate change preparation and mitigation measures, but are instead merely investing more in awareness and education programmes. 

The trouble with the lopsided focus on environmental education as a climate change mitigation strategy is that we are assuming we have 20 years to sit around and wait for the younger generation to graduate and solve environmental problems. We do not have the luxury of time. There is growing consensus among climate scientists that we have no more than 18 months to ensure that global emissions of carbon dioxide peak by 2020 to keep global temperatures within the safe limit. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that to keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, carbon emissions will have to be cut by 45% by 2030. Since countries usually develop strategies in 5 to 10 year blocks, this would mean that the next 12 to 18 months are critical for the international community to develop firm and binding strategies to cut carbon emissions. It is unfair and irresponsible to expect the younger generation to clean up the environmental mess created by adults and governments. Creating an environmental curriculum and putting out more public service announcements while climate change is threatening food security, political and economic stability, and human health and safety is nothing short of an abdication of governmental environmental responsibility. 

Malaysia has been stuck in the ‘awareness’ and ‘education’ phase for over two decades. As someone who has been active in the environmental movement for that length of time, I regret to report that most governmental environmental education initiatives fall into the category of Arts and Crafts activities such as poster contests, stage plays, recycling competitions, and cute public service announcements, and do not constitute actual solutions. 

Instead of legislating and banning single-use plastics and getting manufacturers to commit to waste reduction targets, we are teaching children to stuff plastic wrappers into PET bottles, and to build structures nobody wants or needs with these ‘Eco Bricks’. We are still playing into the hands of the powerful plastics industry lobby by refusing to stem the tide of single-use plastics, and instead pretending that the problem is littering and lack of recycling. 

We are teaching children about the benefits of clean renewable energy, but not providing them with options to purchase electricity from clean energy providers. TNB’s monopoly in the Malaysian electricity market ensures that only those wealthy enough to own landed property and install solar photovoltaic panels can afford to switch to renewable energy. While other countries such as the Republic of Ireland and Norway are divesting from fossil fuels, and university student-led fossil fuel divestment campaigns resulted in universities and companies making commitments to replace fossil fuels with clean renewable energy, 96-97% of Malaysia’s energy consumption still comes from fossil fuels, and the fossil fuel industry still forms a powerful lobby, so powerful in fact that they are allowed to claim in educational materials and science discovery centres that petroleum has not only promoted economic growth but also environmental safety and food security. The Economist Intelligence Unit reported in September that Malaysia aims to increase its total electricity supply output from renewable sources to 20% by 2025, but this goal is too small and unambitious compared to that of Singapore, the Philippines, and other countries in the region. There are also concerns that judging by current consumption trends, it would simply mean that Malaysians will consume more of everything – more fossil fuels, more renewable energy, more private vehicles, more driving, and more air travel. 

We teach children about the benefits of taking public transport and carpooling, but we fail to provide an affordable, reliable, and punctual public transport service to those outside of areas served by RapidKL. We claim to care about the natural world and wildlife, yet we continue to approve and construct more highway projects through environmentally-sensitive areas, and have commenced the production of a third national car that nobody had really asked for, thus effectively encouraging more private vehicle ownership and more driving. 

We teach children to take shorter showers and to turn off the tap when brushing their teeth, but we don’t tell them that non-revenue water loss in Malaysia is calculated to be at the rate of 5,929 million litres per day of treated water, through no fault of children or ordinary consumers. We tell children that water shortage and drought is the result of climate change, but we don’t tell them that in Malaysia this is usually due to the logging and destruction of tropical rainforests, which serve as vital water catchment areas. We don’t tell them that the government has repeatedly failed to gazette and protect watersheds, or has been slow to replace leaking and unsafe water supply pipes. 

We teach children to plant vegetables in their school gardens, but we don’t take significant and decisive action against farmers who use excessive amounts of pesticides and herbicides, thus threatening food safety and human health. The rivers in Cameron Highlands are severely polluted due to agricultural activities, and three of the rivers are declared biologically dead, and no number of mini gardens in school yards can restore the ecosystem of these rivers or produce enough safe food to meet the nutritional needs of Malaysians. 

We teach children to plant trees in parks and school compounds, despite knowing that a tree will only begin to be effective in absorbing carbon in its tenth year, despite knowing that the carbon sequestered through tree replanting is almost negligible. At the same time, we continue to clear and log forests for development, infrastructure projects, and plantations. 

We teach children to ‘love our forests’, but when schoolchildren put up a play linking deforestation to oil palm cultivation, they faced harassment and intimidation from government ministries. Malaysia has lost 7.29 million hectares of tree cover to oil palm cultivation between 2001 and 2017 alone, and oil palm expansion is linked to the human-wildlife conflict, wildlife deaths, and the loss of indigenous lands, yet any call to produce palm oil and agricultural products without deforestation is met with hostility and allegations of treachery and lack of patriotism. Students are permitted to love our forests only as long as this love does not challenge our government’s stand on environmental issues. We cannot expect children to grow up to be problem-solvers if they are not allowed to think critically and question the status quo. 

We teach children that we need to cut down on carbon emissions if the Planet is to survive, but we in Malaysia are coy about letting people know the truth about animal agriculture and climate change. While entire schools in Brazil, Sweden, the USA, and the UK have gone fully vegan, students in Malaysian educational institutions have difficulty finding vegetarian and vegan options, and some have reported of being actively denied or refused vegan food in order to protect the business interests of school caterers and canteen operators. We pretend that abstinence from meat is a religious practice and that eating meat is a religious and cultural right, without providing citizens and students with objective and truthful information about the unsustainability of livestock and poultry farming, and the depletion of our oceans due to overfishing. At environmental events organised or hosted by government departments and agencies, guests continue to be served non-vegetarian food and bottled drinking water, despite requests from environmental organisations for vegetarian and planet-friendly food and beverages. We let our taste buds overrule our conscience, and we make decisions that are damaging to the environment against our better judgement in favour of temporary whims and desires.  

As adults and leaders, what we do must be aligned with what we say. We cannot solve the climate crisis by organizing poster displays and colouring contests. Environmental degradation is outstripping the pace of environmental education by a hundredfold. Environmental education cannot cope with the scale and rapidity with which the environmental crisis is growing. We cannot expect to mitigate and reverse the environmental harm caused by our political inertia by doing the bare minimum and encouraging children and citizens to make personal lifestyle changes, when the onus is on those with political and economic leverage to make firm decisions to secure the future of our planet.