Friday, March 09, 2012

Back to the Futures

Environmental Engineering class at Ulu Gombak, May 2010.

Hey Lance,

Picking up where we left off.

You'll probably read this in Singapore; well, here's hoping you're in a comfortable place as it's gonna be quite a lengthy email ahead, to say the least! Also, I haven't really sifted through or processed all these thoughts, so there might be a bit of a raw edge to them—but I figured I'd retain that, to keep the whole 'conversational' feel intact.

* * *

First off, about the title/header of this email. I just couldn't resist. But yes, back to the futures indeed. Our conversation got me thinking about the postcards I did for the workshop, in context of the discussion with Dr Zeeda. Singaporean kids know what they're supposed to do, and life is pretty much already mapped out for them. But then, do they know why they do what they do? Do they know what they're living for?

In some ways I hope the postcards helped them think about such questions—or maybe some day in the future if/when they do think of these questions, they might have some vague recollection of the postcards exercise. But it occurred to me that, in order to move forward sustainably, context cannot be overlooked or belittled. An awareness of history must exist (the 'Merge' postcard), an awareness of what's around in the present day (the 'iSingapore—beyond reality' postcard), and the ability to see/predict where we're headed (the 'Marina Ark' postcard). And I can assure you that none of these are taught in our schools and universities: nowhere in the formal education background of the students going to SUSI (from Malaysia, at least) are these issues brought up or discussed.

For this reason, we have a lot of bright minds and potential movers/changers/leaders who end up applying themselves only to the mechanics of things—driving the car without knowing where we're headed.

* * *

Some attempt at providing an environmental/biodiversity context has been supplied by the university. The environmental engineering class that comprises Nasha, Sun, Wei Qian, Sheng and Grace went on a week-long jungle camp shortly before SUSI 2010. A PhD student/friend from my department was one of the instructors at the camp and I tagged along to take pictures. And one morning while they were out birdwatching, I took one of the most memorable photos of my student-photographer career [top of this post].

Alright, whether or not the picture is awesome, that's not important. What matters is that, in that picture, those five people were there: Nasha, Sun, Wei Qian, Sheng and Grace. And there they were, immersed for a week in the forest, in the true and living natural heritage of our country. (If you've time, you could show the picture to them; I'm sure it'd bring back memories!)

I sense that most students never get that sort of immersion even within campus. They attend classes, sit exams, get their grades and their degree, maybe get a girlfriend or boyfriend—and off they go. The beauty of the campus, the potential to bring about change on campus, the opportunities to make a difference: all of these are glossed over. And I believe this really does happen because of what so many people tell me at their graduation—that they wish they'd had more time, that they wish they could've seen more of the campus, or done more while they were here. But such reflections are short lived, because the working world swallows them up soon after, and there's no time then to stop and think.

And in the midst of all this, sure, many students get involved in environmental 'projects' and other forms of volunteer activities. But then it's very touch-and-go, very surface-limited engagement: enough for an entry in the CV (e.g., "Ben volunteered at a three-day environmental festival"—yay) but not much use for anything long-term.

* * *

I revisited a blog post I wrote about some of my last days in residential college, here. And I found that I ended the post with a photograph of an inscription on a wall in my room, here, and below:

Roughly translated, the words read, "There is no meaning in life if an acquaintance does not leave memories/evoke love in the heart of man; cherish every encounter." These words greeted me when I first entered the room in 2007, lived with me throughout my stay in college, and saw me out when I graduated in 2010. They continue to inspire and influence me.

* * *

Then there was the work on the theatre (the ET project). Here's our official project website, and here's the newspaper clipping.

It is arguably the achievement of which I'm most proud in all my student life. Not just because of the triumphant portfolio of photographs we managed to compile by the end, but more so because of what the university administration had to say about our team. They were most inspired by the fact that this was entirely a student-mooted, student-led and student-executed project—we weren't told to do any of this, and none of it contributed to our grades or any positions of influence within clubs and societies. We gave what we had for the fun of it, for the love of it. And the university as a whole had something to benefit from it, too.

Although I was commissioned to write the UM Cares Sustainability Handbook in late 2010, I really couldn't get things off the ground until we were done with the ET project in mid-2011. The reason for this is that, at time of commission, the handbook was envisioned to be a checklist of "Dos and Don'ts"—something quite technical.

I couldn't bring myself to produce a book that was all technical knowledge, but offered no perspectives as to why we should live in such a way; a book of rules with no motivation to follow them; a book about sustainability with no mention of the campus environment it purportedly calls us to sustain. But after the ET project, things started to make a bit of sense to me; I finally saw how, over the years, I had been moved and motivated by the 'heritage' dimension of living on campus—our environmental and cultural heritage. This then provided me with a compelling context from which to present the observations you now find in the completed handbook.

* * *

Coming back to SUSI, I've always asked myself, since 'graduating' from SUSI and university, what it all meant to me. What did I learn from all of it—both SUSI and my experiences on campus—and in what way can I best contribute to the environmental movement?

Christina called me a 'poet-scientist', and I think there is some truth to that. I think, with the hindsight of two years, that I'll very likely always be on the spiritual/emotional side of the environmental movement.

I appreciated the lessons learnt on the Hokule'a, but most of all the experience with Julia Neal in Ka'u, and also my solo visit to the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington, D.C. When you consider these in light of my work on the ET (the theatre), you'll see one strong thread that binds them: they're all about redeeming old buildings and land, and making something good and useful of them.

That's why I was so intrigued by the video, The Greenest Building (link here)—because I could identify personally with it on some level. I don't know much about engineering and the technical aspects behind LEED-certified buildings or all the nitty-gritty of materials science, but I do know something about taking an old shell of a building and breathing new life into it. I do know that doing that sort of thing helps preserve a sense of history and appreciation for the land on which the building was built.

And I do know it brings about a deeper sense of ownership and responsibility, i.e., that we inherit the land and space in which we live, and that we don't just break down and bury the past, as if every generation is a clean slate.

(Some of this appeared in that poem I wrote for the EWC Impulse, 'To Salvage a Ravaged Land', in the line, "Hermits moving in and out of old messes.")

It seems, two years down the road, I am finally able to make sense of all the input, and finally get a more refined idea of what my 'life action plan' will be about. I'm glad to say that the handbook and biodiversity map are done (hence completing part of the action plan I set out on at SUSI), but there's a long way to go to developing a sustainable database of campus biodiversity—it could take between 5-10 years to really make it happen and become a strong and influential 'institution' on campus. Perhaps less time if we actually have a dedicated team working on it, but I think a minimum of 5 years is reasonable.

And all this in the midst of uncertainty as to where I'll be, and what I'll be doing, a year from now.

I also appreciated the meeting with Azira. Writing, photography and story-telling have always been close to my heart. To use these talents/interests of mine to serve the environmental movement is something that does interest me, but I haven't found a suitable outlet for that just yet. Perhaps Azira might be that missing link. I'll keep in touch with her and we'll see where things go from there.

So these are the things that remain close to my heart: writing, art and photography, heritage/history, cool colonial buildings, conscientious architecture. I'm probably not going to build any high-tech, cutting-edge buildings; probably not going to develop solutions for solid waste; probably not going to make headway in the energy equation; probably not going to run for office and become Minister for the Environment... I only say 'probably' because I don't know, and I'm not going to discount the possibilities that any of these may happen.

But somewhere deep inside (and I think it shows on projects like the ET photo project, the Singapore postcards, my SUSI portfolio, the environmental photojournalism award, and the published poems), I think my ideal 'operating matrix' is none of the above. I'm still searching for it, and still communicating my vision of (and for) the world, along the way. And I am so grateful for all the conversations and insights we've shared along the way—the time in Singapore last year, and this week here in Malaysia, have not been in vain at all.

Have a great SUSI 2012!

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