By Sam Allen

“Those who judge will never understand, and those who understand will never judge.” Wilson Kanadi

Loaded question: Do you feel guilty when you consider your impact on the environment? Do you think of actions that others should take to reduce their carbon footprints?  Does that stir up anger within you?

Well, dear reader, these feelings might not be your fault. Instead, they might be a symptom of a narrative that has been built around environmentalism. A narrative of Us versus Them, with an emphasis placed on what They should be doing. Harmful as it is, there is a silver lining—responsibility in how You proceed in your efforts, even small ones, to tackle climate change.

In his article “Eco-authenticity: Advocating for a low-carbon world while living a high-carbon lifestyle,”blogger and professor of Sustainable Enterprise, Andrew J. Hoffman describes the limits and prospects of individual action in environmental activism. In what might be considered a prophetic rebuke of cancel culture, Hoffman asks us to reflect on the things we can do to better the environment, without judging others for what they’re doing—or not doing. 

Hoffman’s argument is an ethical clarion-call to:

  • Look at ourselves.
  • Refrain from judging others or ourselves, and, I believe.
  • Rekindle curiosity about the issues we are confronted with before acting or blaming our neighbours.

How Does This Apply To ASEAN?

In Southeast Asia, there seems to be a growing rural-urban demographic shift, and it has climate consequences. Cosmopolitan creative classes and their neighbours throughout the region are rapidly re-industrialising while rural farmers are relying on basic agriculture and the forest economy for their livelihoods. In this divide, even as the internet usage boomed during the pandemic and made for somewhat similar lifestyles, city dwellers and their rural cousins might be lured into playing the “blame and shame” game about their respective “choices”.

Take the habitat destruction that affects orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra, for instance. The forests this fascinating and complex ape calls home are being destroyed and displaced for palm oil plantations and timber exports. While Conservation International is working to help create sustainable palm plantations that will use palm oil for fuel cooking and food manufacturing around the world, many plantations are still forcing Orangutans out of their homes with nowhere else to go.  

Another loaded question: Who matters more? Primates or people? 

Hoffman’s argument points to both.  

In his conclusion, he states: “This is the essence of individual action, to strive for a new awareness. We can’t explore [a] new reality in the abstract. We have to strive for change at the larger scale while also experimenting with changes in our own everyday lifestyles. Eco-authenticity resides in both.”

In other words, we all have more to learn, about palm oil and timber exports, about orangutans, and about everything else.

In fact, in 2010, the conservation news source MongaBay published research findings indicating that orangutans use new acacia forests that are sometimes planted to replace their original habitat. While this might be an uncomfortable fact for folks who would prefer timber trade to be halted entirely, and I lean toward this group, it also offers hope: orangutans might be able to survive if their habitat is treated with forethought and intelligence. 

However, another, more recent, study said that these conservation strategies are not enough

What Should We Do?

I propose the following: investigate, imagine, and then act.

I think what Hoffman means by eco-authenticity, is that we need to always consider our situations and means of improvement before (gasp!) prescribing change for others. In the case of deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra, we might need to consider our role in palm oil consumption before pointing fingers at the complex lives of people who live near orangutan habitats.  

And this, dear reader, is a philosophical consideration. Think about it.

The opening quote about judgement and understanding was from the philosophising twitterer Wilson Kanadi.  Jesus is said to have pleaded something similar on the cross when he said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they are doing.”

The “they” is in reference to the thieves on the crosses next to Jesus who were mocking him. I would argue, though, that we should turn our glances inward towards our own actions.  Do we know what we’re doing?  Is there something that we should be aware of that might propel us to commit to more just, more equitable, and yes, more environmentally-sound actions?

Life is complex and full of mystery, and that’s part of its beauty

Let our thoughts, our judgements, and our actions reflect this truth.

Don’t cancel others before you can understand them.

Then maybe we can find true eco-authenticity, something our planet desperately needs.