Asian Culture and the Vision for the Future

02 Feb 2024
Asian Culture and the Vision for the Future
by Dr. Darian McBain I’m increasingly struck by the belief that the ‘West’ came up with the idea of sustainability, and that now is the time to make the ‘East’ follow the rules. Or as I often hear when I travel to colder climes north of Singapore, the ‘Global North’ is leading the conversations on where the ‘Global South’ should be headed on sustainability. When it comes to Asia, with some small island exceptions, the term Global South does not geographically apply at all. China, India, Japan, Korea and all of ASEAN (except for a small amount of Indonesia) are in the Northern Hemisphere. Singapore is 1 degree north of the Equator, but firmly in the northern hemisphere. So, when people in Europe, the US and the UK start talking about what they need the ‘Global South’ to do in terms of sustainability engagement, not only are they geographically misplaced when it comes to most of Asia, but I think we are missing an even bigger piece of the puzzle – the cultural significance of sustainability. Europe in particular is leading on sustainability from accountability frameworks and regulations, which are managed through data sets, numbers and things that you can measure. This system is good for comparability and for measuring progress. However, not all change happens based on numbers. Look at climate change – the numbers from the science have been available for decades, but many policy makers and scientists would argue that the numbers have not changed hearts and minds. So, if numbers don’t change hearts and minds, and we need people and cultures to embrace a more sustainable way of living, why are we still leading with numbers? Asian cultures have a strong identification with concepts that are synonymous with sustainability – intergenerational equity, living in harmony with nature, and respect (for education, for the elderly etc). We should not assume that all knowledge on sustainability is contained in those indicators that can easily be measured and managed. In Asia, we need to develop better mechanisms for communicating our own approaches, and for sharing knowledge back from Asia to thought leaders further north. Current sustainability reporting frameworks, such as the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) or Dow Jones Sustainability Index family (DJSI) help to form our views of sustainability through numeric frameworks. The IFRS taking the lead on the development of the ISSB is a clear indicator of how the financial system views sustainability – through a numeric lens that allows for comparison. We also see this through the reduction of complex issues around climate change to CO2-eq – a number that can be added and subtracted, comparable across borders and behaves in many ways similarly to financial flows. However, to take these frameworks and lay them over the centuries of culture and tradition in Asia doesn’t consider the rich cultural diversity that already exists and the way that sustainability is already integrated into societies which have also existed for thousands of years (the very definition of sustainability). Concepts of sustainability exist in many cultures throughout the world, from Africa and Latin America to the Australian Aboriginals. Eastern philosophies such as Confucianism and Buddhism bring to us a cyclical view of time, the connection between people and nature, and between our past, present and our futures. Culturally, the imposition of a regulated, data-led perspective of sustainability does not always sit well with the learnings, philosophy and cultures of the East, and I would argue that it does not always need to. Let’s look at two countries in Asia and their vision for the future, and how it relates to sustainability. The first perspective is to look at Thailand and the Sufficiency Economy model promoted by the late King Rama IX. The second is to look at the work of Studio Ghibli from Japan and the themes of an optimistic and alternative future that cuts across their film catalogue. Both very different approaches to sustainability, but each providing a perspective on culture, on how we can live more harmoniously and create a better future. The late King of Thailand, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great, worked hard to engender a culture of self-sufficiency in Thailand, seeing this as a solution for economic challenges and poverty alleviation. The Sufficiency Economy model, for which the King was recognised by the United Nations in the first Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, promotes sustainable agriculture and use of resources, moderation in consumption, resilience through planning for the future, and supporting the family and community. There is a strong emphasis on the social side of sustainability, through education and health promotion. It discourages over-consumption and the pursuit of material goods, and generating benefits for yourself over others. It is aligned with Buddhist teachings, as you would expect in a country where over 90% of the population identifies as Buddhist. I started to look more deeply at the self-sufficiency economy through a new lens when collaborating with the London School of Economics and Political Science and reviewing the Just Nature Transition framework. This framework spoke about how the world needs to transition to Net Zero, ensuring that people and nature transition with it. We can’t have a transition to net zero which values the zero carbon above livelihoods, hunger, decent work and biodiversity. There is a strong synergy between this more modern concept of financing a just nature transition, with the concepts developed by the late King Bhumibol. Moving to Japan, the work of Studio Ghibli has long shown us what a positive future may look like. I have written before about the need to integrate culture into our plans to transition to a net zero future. The numeric approach to sustainability, whilst being helpful for comparisons and benchmarks, does nothing to address the cultural complexity of changing society needs and desires. Hidden within spirit guides and houses in the sky, Studio Ghibli gives us the alternative view to the post-apocalyptic future world that inhabits Western films of the future such as Mad Max and Blade Runner. There are few filmmakers producing films to help us think about what our future will look like in 2050 (a timeframe aligned with the Paris Declaration to halt or slow climate change), and even fewer who see the future in a positive light. There is little concept of intergenerational equity in modern Western films – children in the films on the future are generally seen as having much poorer lives than those of children now and little emphasis placed on the wisdom of the elderly. In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), the Japanese post-apocalyptic fantasy world created by Hayao Miyazaki created a vision for how a peaceful and beautiful life could exist even after the forests had turned toxic, the air was difficult to breathe, and angry insects caused destruction. The forests themselves were found to be filtering out the pollutants from humans, creating fresh water and air below the surface. Following the success of Nausicaä, Miyazaki collaborated to create Studio Ghibli, a studio with artists and long-time collaborators with a similar vision for the future. With Laputa, Castle in the Sky (1986), strong themes of living in harmony with nature, the future, gender and life resonated throughout. This work is often credited as being one of the clearest views of a solar punk future, with biophilic building designs, flying machines, harnessing power from the sun, and a blend of futuristic and past agriculture models. By helping to create the vision for the future through film, Studio Ghibli gives us a glimpse into a culture led transition to net zero rather than a numeric led approach. Other films from Studio Ghibli bring in Asian cultural perspectives to sustainability, which are missing from any of the Western sustainability frameworks. In Spirited Away (2001), which interweaves Japanese folklore, the terrible Stink Spirit who visited the bath house turned out to be a river, blocked and clogged with old junk and rubbish which was making it so bloated and pungent. In Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), the lead character Sophie, a young woman, was turned into a 90-year-old woman by the Witch of the Waste, but she found release in the freedom of being old. “The nice thing about being old is that you have got so little to lose,” muses Sophie. The themes of beauty in nature, compassion, conflict and peace, as well as flying machines, alternative energy sources and the impacts of greed run throughout the Studio Ghibli works. Many who are designing sustainability frameworks for our future, for 2050 and beyond, are looking at data comparisons for now and have not considered how the real world and real people will transform, or what it takes to transform cultures. Central Banks take note – the Real Economy is not a galaxy far, far away. It is where our food is produced, where energy systems are developed, and where we live our lives. Traditional cultures globally can provide us with clues on how we can transition to a nature positive, people inclusive future. Thailand, Japan and many other cultures already have strong images and frameworks for what the future could look like. Let’s not be led by only numbers or encourage cultural imperialism on sustainability from the ‘Global North’. We need to recognise the value that Asian cultures can bring to a sustainable future. Let’s develop a cultural framework for the way we want to live for generations to come.
About the Author Dr. Darian McBain is the CEO and Founder of Outsourced Chief Sustainability Officer Asia, a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Board Member and an investor in a sustainable future. She previously was Chief Sustainability Officer at the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Global Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at Thai Union Group.

Sasin Collaborative Thought Leadership: Transforming Our Critical Systems Complex multi-actor systems have developed around satisfying critical human needs, such as nutrition, mobility, energy, or housing. These systems, as well as enabling sub-systems such as education, finance, etcetera, represent most of our economic activity, but there is also enormous inefficiency embedded in the complexity and dynamics through which these systems have evolved, making them responsible for most of humanity’s environmental and social impact. Current efforts to reduce our negative impact can hardly be considered successful, because too much focus is still on marginal improvement of our traditional models. Only 18% of the 169 targets set for the 2030 SDGs are on track to be reached (most targets show virtually no progress and 15% are in fact reversing). This is why increasingly, scholars and practitioners are trying to understand the nature of systemic change, the radical reinvention of our critical systems. Cambridge University Press recently published ‘Transforming our Critical SystemsHow Can We Achieve the Systemic Change the World Needs’ by Sasin professor GJ van der Zanden and researcher Rozanne Henzen. Sasin has invited thought leaders and practitioners from around the world to share their visions and insights on the reinvention of the systems that they are part of. These pieces provide a rich variety of perspectives from business, policy makers, civil society, academia and think tanks, as well as enablers such as finance, technology and start-ups. In systems change, incorporating perspectives from multiple stakeholders is essential to come to a shared understanding of the system dynamics and challenges, develop a shared vision of the future and explore possible interventions and collaborations.
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