ISBN : 9789811441363 (paperbook)
Published by : Ethos Books
Pages: 276 ($17.17)
Note: The book being reviewed focuses on environmental and social issues in Singapore. However, the same issues, sometimes in different forms, are important in many countries. Singapore is a city-state, which became independent in 1965. The population approaches six million people, of which more than a million are not citizens. Among the citizens, the main ethnic groups (in descending order of population size) are Chinese, Malay, and Indian. Per capita income is relatively high.
A summary of “Eating Chili Crab in the Anthropocene” by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson (2020).
Reviewed by George Jacobs of HealthPartners.sg
Greta Thunberg, the teenage vegan environmental activist from Sweden, symbolizes young people taking it into their hands to do something about the environmental crisis that has been decades in the making and worsens daily. Youth in Singapore have also participated in actions for the environment, such as organizing a Climate Rally at Hong Lim Park (a park designated for the expression of ideas that may be outside the mainstream) in 2019. In that same spirit, all this book’s authors were born after 1993.
What went through my mind as I was reading this book was: Wow! These people are knowledgeable and they for sure can write. Now, I wondered, what are the 13 chapter authors and the readers of this excellent book actually going to do about how those of us humans with lots of cash are making such as mess of the world for the rest of humanity and our fellow animals. Are they/we going to be those people who do little other than impressing everyone with their knowledge and depressing everyone by explaining why the solutions anyone proposes will never work? Or, conversely, are they going to be the ones who take such actions as joining/starting green businesses, the ones who anger family and friends by declining to fly off for holidays or to join the fun at seafood restaurants? Is this book going to be the tipping point for many of its readers, inspiring them to make real real-life adjustments to how they live their lives?
Below, I provide a peek at each of the 12 chapters, including a not-so-fun fact I’ve selected from the many facts the authors dug up, plus a suggestion by me as to what we can do to practice what the authors of this book preach. The not-so-fun facts start in the Introduction by the book’s editor, Matthew Schneider Mayerson, who informs us that we humans constitute only 0.01 per cent of the total mass of all living things on Earth, and that is without deducting for the fact that only 43% of the cells in our bodies are actually human cells, with the majority being bacteria, viruses, fungi, and archaea (bacteria-like single-celled microorganisms).
Humans’ microscopic share of the Earth’s mass stands out because of our out-sized impact on what happens on the planet. We are so impactful that many scientists believe our current geologic epoch should be called the Anthropocene, with “anthro” meaning “human.” The previous geologic epoch was called the Holocene. The idea behind renaming our current geologic epic the Anthropocene is that we humans constitute the primary force of change on the planet. In my experience, many people are unfamiliar with “anthropocene,” in the book’s title, Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene. Most people also lack awareness of another anthro term Matthew introduces: “anthropocentric,” which refers to the attitude of humans who don’t seem to understand or care about what happens to other species with whom we share the planet, the other 99.99% of the total mass of all living things.
The chapter by Neo Xiaoyun, the one used in the title of the book, urges us to spare a thought for the 6000 giant mud crabs who are eaten every day in Singapore. Xiaoyun describes for us both the natural lives of crabs, as well as how the dish chilli crab has been used in an attempt to both attract tourists and to form bonds among Singaporeans. The not-so-fun fact in this is that evidence suggests that crabs and other crustaceans, contrary to popular belief, do indeed feel pain. Fortunately, most of the flavor in chilli crab comes from the spices, not from the dead crabs. So, here’s a recipe you can use the next time you get an urge to eat chilli crab: https://woonheng.com/vegan-chili-crab/
The next chapter, Lovable Lutrines: Curated Nature and Environmental Migrants in the Ottercity, by Heeeun Monica Kim, looks at the small population of otters who call Singapore home. These wild mammals have drawn a great deal of attention and might tempt people to think, “Hey, Singapore isn’t really such as concrete jungle after all.” Kim applauds volunteer and government efforts to protect otters, but she wonders why otters receive all this care while other wild animals, such as white-bellied woodpeckers, do not. The not-so-fun fact is that we tend to protect “cute” animals, and otters, with their round heads, big eyes, squeaky sounds, and soft-textured bodies, qualify as cute, because those characteristics remind us of babies. Fortunately, the charity ACRES – acres.org.sg – looks out for all wild animals (and farmed animals), regardless of where the animals register on a cuteness scale.
The book’s third chapter, To Build a City-State and Erode History: Sand and the Construction of Singapore, by Sarah Novak, looks at a substance crucial to the development of modern Singapore: sand. These tiny grains form the buildings we live in, much of the reclaimed land in Singapore, and many of the parts of the electronic devices we depend on. This chapter’s not-so-fun fact informs us that, using sand (much of it from other countries), Singapore has created reclaimed land that has expanded the country’s size from 590 square kilometers to 720 kilometers, with more land reclamation being planned. Unfortunately, these shifting sands damage coastal ecosystems. Fortunately, we can do something to save coastal ecosystems; for example, at Loola, a genuine eco-resort on Bintan, guests and staff plant mangrove trees that protect against flooding and erosion.
Consuming Tigers, the chapter by Ng Xin, explains how the advent of the British, with their ethic of conquering nature, in contrast to indigenous views of co-existing with nature, signalled the extinction of tigers in Singapore and their threatened extinction elsewhere in SE Asia. One traditional legend about tigers attributes to the them the ability to transform themselves. Ng explains that advertisers have indeed transformed tigers such that these charismatic apex predators now roam Singapore in much larger numbers than ever before, not in the flesh but as symbols for such products as Tiger Beer and Tiger Balm ointment. This chapter’s not-so-fun fact informs us that in normal geologic times, such as during the Holocene, species went extinct at a rate of about one species every 700 years. Sadly, now in the Anthropocene, a mass extinction is disappearing species at a much faster rate. The good news is that in Malaysia, supported by Singaporeans, an NGO named Citizen Action for Tigers – https://www.citizenactionfortigers.my/ – works with government, indigenous communities, and others to protect the approximately 200 remaining tigers.
I went dumpster diving once. Thus, the chapter Dumpster Diving in Semakau: Retrieving Indigenous Histories from Singapore’s Waste Island, by Fu Xiyao, caught my eye. The chapter is not about actually exploring dumpsters to retrieve still-usable items. Instead, Xiyao explains about the two off-shore islands of Pulau Semakau (“pulau” means island) and Pulau Seking which Singapore uses as a kind of gigantic dumpster to bury our incinerated waste. The not-so-fun fact here is that in 1970, Singapore generated 1260 tonnes of solid waste a day, but by 2017, that figure had gone wild – up to 8443 tonnes daily. One point of interest in the chapter involved the Orang Laut, the indigenous sea people who lived on the two small islands and were forced to relocate. Fortunately, some of their history has been preserved by the Island Nation documentary project: http://islandnation.sg/ and in the play Tanah Air. Please check them out, and while you are doing that, please follow the advice of Zero Waste Singapore: http://www.zerowastesg.com/. So much of what they recommend is so easy to implement.
Michelle Chong, in Feeding the Monkeys: Towards a Multispecies Singapore, discusses an issue familiar to people who visit and live near some of Singapore’s nature reserves: the uneasy coexistence of long-tailed macaques and humans. The not-so-fun fact from this chapter is that the government sometimes eases this uneasy coexistence by culling (a polite term for killing) our fellow primates. Michelle explains three possible views on macaques and humans sharing our small island: 1) the monkeys are a nuisance, even a terror; 2) the anthropocentric humans are to blame because we usurp the macaques’ homes; 3) the two species can beneficially live together if we are intentional about creating shared spaces. Jane Goodall, the person who, perhaps more than anyone else, has taught humans about our fellow primates, also provides way for us to share spaces. Jane Goodall Institute Singapore has two programs, Monkey Walks and Monkey Guard: https://janegoodall.org.sg/our-programmes-and-campaigns/primate-programmes/long-tailed-macaque/
Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene’s next chapter, by Lee Jin Hee, talks about another species whom many humans consider to be a nuisance. In Javan Mynahs, ‘Invasive’ Species and Belonging in Singapore, Jin Hee describes how the Singapore government has used traps and laser beams against the mynahs whose loud noises and poop have angered many humans. These actions against mynahs draw some strength from the fact that the birds are not native to Singapore. Lee links the environmental and the political by discussing anti-immigrant feelings in Singapore (full disclosure – I’m a naturalized Singaporean). Especially in the Anthropocene, as climate-provoked hardships drive people in other countries from their homes, the number of climate refugees, both non-human and human seems certain to increase. The chapter’s not-so-fun fact is that 49% of Singaporeans surveyed back in 2013 favored cutting immigration even at the cost of jobs, despite the majority of Singaporeans being descendants of immigrants. One action to take in light of this chapter might be to act on behalf of migrant workers in Singapore, via organizations such as Transient Workers Count Too: https://twc2.org.sg. Especially in the world-upturning Anthropocene, Lee’s concluding words deserve consideration, “It is our moral imperative to challenge arbitrary notions of ‘nativeness’ and nationhood, with an ethic of care to guide our way—whether the newcomers are mynahs, stingrays, snails or humans” (p. 153).
The not-so-fun fact of Yogesh Tulsi’s chapter, An Oily Mirror: 1950s Orang Minyak Films as Singaporean Petrohorror tells us that while the official number for Singapore’s contribution to world carbon emissions is only 0.11%, factoring in the country’s role as one of the world’s petrochemical hubs makes that number leap much higher. How can Singapore do its fair share to combat climate change while still enjoying the benefits of its hub status? Like all this book’s chapters, Yogesh’s views issues from a cultural lens. Using that lens, Yogesh tell us about the Orang Minyak, creatures from Malay legend whose influence has been felt as far away as Sweden. Covered in oil, Orang Minyak terrify villages, although perhaps, like Frankenstein and some other monsters, Orang Minyak may be basically well-intentioned. Yogesh speculates that the makers of two late-1950s horror films about these creatures may have been commenting on the nascent rise of the petrochemical industry in Malaya. What can we do now, 60+ years later when the growth of petrochemicals shows no sign of decline, and SE Asian governments display no interest in slowing the industry’s expansion? Yogesh has a suggestion: attempt to go without plastic for a week. That may be almost impossible, but just like reducing consumption of animal-based foods, lowering plastics use is a case of “every little bit helps.”
In addition to being a petrochemical hub, Singapore works hard to maintain its role as an aviation hub, with its Singapore Airlines and subsidiaries and the ever-improving Changi Airport (Singapore’s highly rated and, until COVID, very busy airport). Singapore’s effort to maintain its aviation hub status serves as the focus of Mathias Ooi Yikai’s chapter, Changing Course: Jewel Changi and the Ethics of Aviation. Mathias does not mince words when describing aviation’s adverse environmental impact. “Sustainable aviation (promoted by Singapore Airlines and other carriers),” he concisely explains, “is a farce” (p. 186). Mathias continues, “Singapore’s unapologetic attitude towards airport expansion is perhaps most evident in its 2018 Climate Change Plan, in which the only mention of aviation is a promise to build the upcoming (Changi Airport) Terminal 5 at 5.5 metres above the mean sea level so as to guard against the going rise in sea level” (p. 187). The chapter’s not-so-fun fact reveals that the aviation industry’s share of global carbon emissions is expected to rise from 3% to 22% by 2050. Is that a typo! Fortunately, once Covid-19 lifts, and before it is replaced by another zoonotic pandemic, many opportunities present themselves for surface travel to other countries, either by sea or on land. For instance, LooLa resort, mentioned previously and located just a boat and van ride away, facilitates guests to build Safe Water Gardens – https://safewatergardens.org – a project of universities, businesses, and community organizations to build sanitation systems for families in rural areas in Bintan and elsewhere in Indonesia.
Two points I want to take away from Aidan Mock’s chapter, Singapore on Fire: From Fossil History to Climate Activism, are, first, to bring about change, we need to understand the past. In the case of fossil fuels in Singapore, this means understanding why in the early days of the Republic, Singapore’s government made such a push to build up the petroleum industry, resulting in (this chapter’s not-so-fun fact) an oil and gas industry that in 2015 accounted for SGD81 billion, one-third of manufacturing output. Second, system-based change can be far more important than individual lifestyle changes. Thus, better that people work for system change by campaigning for higher carbon taxes than that they make an individual change by cutting their use of one-way plastic items. Similarly, many vegans are excited about a system change such as alternative protein companies growing here, for example, Shiok Meats, often with government support. I was happy to read about Aidan’s optimism that Singapore can move away from fossil fuels. Two factors fuelling that optimism are: 1) Singapore has moved away from industries before, such as the garment industry; 2) Singapore’s leaders have shown willingness to take risks and the skill to make those risks pay off. Aidan has good advice for people who want to contribute to rescuing the planet’s inhabitants from the grip of the Anthropocene. He advises that question we must ask ourselves is not whether we have something to contribute, because we all do. Instead, the question to ask is how our skills, aptitudes, and interests can best speed our planet’s transition to a zero-carbon future.
I was glad to see a chapter on education in Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene. Titled Learning to Thrive: Educating Singapore’s Children for a Climate-Changed World, this chapter by Al Lim and Feroz Khan, asks how education can prepare students to not just survive but also thrive in the Anthropocene. Al and Feroz focus on values. When I came to Singapore in 1993, I soon heard of the 5Cs values: cash, car, condominium, country club, and credit card. This chapters not-so-fun fact is that the 5Cs remain very much at the top of many people’s lists in one form or another. Fortunately, the authors offer five alternative values for young people to consider (pp. 229-230): frugality – use resources carefully and focus on enjoying intangibles, such as time with friends and walks in nature; adaptation – rather than humans imposing our will on nature, we should build resilience and flexibility to see how we can best to fit with nature; humility – appreciate that life is complicated, that other perspectives are needed, and that we need to listen and observe respectfully; cooperation – instead of competition, we can look for how our outcomes and those of others are positively correlated; and systems-thinking – appreciate the big picture and how one part impacts others and how together they impact still others. Actually, those are good values for us adults, too.
The book’s final chapter, by Bertrand Seah, Another Garden City is Possible: A Plan for a Post-Carbon Singapore, attempts a very ambitious task. One not-so-fun fact is that the Singapore government, like governments in so many other countries, may prioritize GDP over moving toward carbon zero. For example, Bertrand, when discussing efforts to move toward green investments, quotes a senior minister of state who stated that investment choices are “commercial decisions” and furthermore that “the Government does not interfere or influence” investment decisions (p. 257). Obviously, we all will be learning a great deal in the upcoming years. We will be trying, failing, learning, and trying again in an ongoing cycle. One way to learn with others is to organize an Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene Book Club. The book’s publisher, Ethos Books, offers a free starter pack including supplementary material and resources for managing eco-anxiety: http://bit.ly/chillicrabbookclub.
In conclusion, I like the spirit of this book. While the authors strongly dislike much of what they observe in modern Singapore, they offer their chapters in the spirit of constructive criticism. Many other people in Singapore and elsewhere share those criticisms. Let us hope that the book serves as a tool to both bring together those convinced that strong measures are needed to repair the damage being done in the Anthropocene, as well as to start dialogue with those of other opinions.