The Story of Pulau Redang

My photography has always been inspired by the interdisciplinary discourse of ecological economics and contemporary environmental thought. Both of these areas constitute a significant part of my professional life and therefore for me the practice of photography and ecological economics are very much intertwined. Ever since the publication of ‘Limits to Growth’, the economists, social scientists and ecologists have started to incorporate the idea of planetary boundaries, the physical resource and environmental limits to unbounded economic growth, new approaches to decision making and so on. My most recent contribution on these issues was published by Springer this year. It is a book entitled ‘Green Economy Reader’, which is much recommended for everyone. It is a volume, which brings together the leading sustainability thinkers of our time and could prove to be a useful source for inspiration about the contemporary environmental discourse.

The image I would like to share with you has been made in Malaysia on a remote island of Pulau Redang, a conservation area, a place where you need to pay an environmental tax of about 1 pound to visit. I visited this unique Malaysian island in 2012 and was deeply impressed. The ultimate paradise island of white sand, crystal clear water and mega diverse ecosystems opened my eyes to the larger issues our world is facing as my journey unfolded. Very early in the morning I came to the beach to meditate. It is absolutely unique, thought I, closing my eyes and listening to the sound of the waves, but suddenly a persistent loud noise interrupted by meditation. Teenagers. On motorbikes. Racing. On the most beautiful beach I have ever seen in my life. They turned around as if wanting to say: ‘what’s up, man, it is our island, we do what we want here’. I thought maybe the civilization offers them something exciting technological advancement that improves their level of well-being tremendously, and then realised that everyone is using combustion engines for transportation on the tiny 6km island, which has onlyone major street. It is very hot most of the day and higher speed creates some air movement. Right, I though, but where are the straw hats? Where are the bicycles, for heavens’ sake? But I saw none.

Exploring the island further, I realised that oil has to be brought from the mainland to produce electricity, which is used in several expensive hotels charging up to GBP300 per night. On an island where there is no winter and abundant sunshine throughout the year, using solar panels would be a very easy thing to do.

I learned that the island is famous for the conservation of sea turtles and headed to another beach in the afternoon. To my great surprise no turtles were to be seen around, but a huge diversity of plastics: white, red, blue, black, all kinds and shapes. It was simply astonishing. I asked the staff at my hotel why there was so much rubbish on the beach and the answer was: ‘we are in the Monsoon season, sir. The beach is closed”. He was not getting the point either. I later noticed that both the tourists and the locals left colourful Coca-Cola bottles lying around on the beach, where as a matter of fact there was a huge dedicated bin provided. What is it? Laziness? Indifference? Lack of knowledge? Inability to deal with the advancement of civilization?

I decided to take a walk and crossed the jungle along the little stream that connected the wetland with the sea. After careful examination, it became apparent that the water in the stream was not completely transparent and might have been affected by the sewage and the soapy water from the human activities on the island. Water, waste, transport, energy, everywhere I saw new issues and was thinking of the way to solve them. We clearly need to organize an educational trip to the island to teach the communities to preserve the precious ecosystems that they have, offering them alternatives and explaining the dangers of unprocessed plastics in the coastal environment.

The sound-scape on the other hand was terrific. I have never heard such a diversity of voices and ways of singing before. The whole experience reminded me instantly of Huxley’s novel, the Island and the conflicts and pressures that are described there. Every time a strange sound was heard in the canopy, it reminded me of the Myna bird from the novel, crying ‘Attention! Attention!’. Indeed, thought I. This little island is crying for attention, but there are thousands islands like that around the world. We are in fact living on one slightly bigger island. Are we capable of designing our economic system in such a way that it preserves or even restores the carrying capacity of the Earth? Can we try to understand the ways in which our economy is affecting the natural biogeochemical cycles: carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous, and so on? Are we capable of adequately dealing with plastics in our waste stream that is currently polluting the oceans. Can we generate energy without causing climate change? Is it possible for us to eat healthy food without destroying the unique biodiversity and ecosystems surrounding us? Ecological Economists were one of the first to draw our attention to these issues, and following E.F. Schumacher called for a creation of a new, ecological economics, which would consider the economy as a sub-system of the wider natural system.

 

References:

Meadows, D., Meadows D., Randers J., Behrens W.W. (1972) The Limits to Growth, Universe Books, 204pp.

Shmelev S., ed.  (2017) Green Economy Reader. Lectures in Ecological Economics and Sustainability, Springer, 463 pp.

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(c) Stanislav Shmelev, 2012

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