“I am not an environmentalist” – Interview with Alizan Mahadi

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Alizan Mahadi is an analyst in the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, focusing on the nexus between energy, water and food security and a holistic view of sustainable development. In this interview, he tells us why he does not regard himself as an environmentalist, his views on deforestation and how to get involved in the environmental scene.

Tell us about yourself.

You mentioned something about me being an environmentalist. I don’t really consider myself as an environmentalist, actually. My field is sustainable development, and the field of environmentalism is quite a confusing one. There are many who think that “environmentalists” is kind of an oxymoron. Historically, those who push for environmentalism are not really saving the environment. Their issue is still anthropocentric. It’s still about people. So it’s not about the environment. That’s one thing. And then, if you consider the environment as something really valuable, then what the environmentalist did after that was… kind of a reductionist approach. Like saying that it’s based on CO2, it’s based on all these measures which doesn’t really capture what nature, or the environment, is. So I don’t really see myself as an environmentalist, for that.

Secondly, my field is sustainable development. In the traditional sense, it’s a combination of the three pillars of environment, social, and economy. Especially for a country like Malaysia, which is still developing, I think that there is still a need for economic and social development. With the environment balanced across the three. But I think the big thing is that a lot of people equate the environment with sustainable development. It’s the fact that traditionally, especially in Malaysia, the economic and social pillars have always been the basis of our development, throughout the Malaysia Plans, eradicating poverty has been our main aim. Which we have done successfully.

But the environmental pillar, around the world, and especially in Malaysia, is the weaker part, that’s why a lot of the topics surrounding sustainability is about the environment. But it’s more because of the fact that the environment has been left out of development. As you can see, now people are realizing that the environment is one of the more important, for even the economic and social development. With ecological economist Herman Daly’s triangle, the natural capital is most important, over human capital.

So, that’s my interest – more on the interconnection between the environment, social, economy, in our lives. So, you know, just a semantics thing maybe, but I really don’t see myself as an environmentalist, more uh, I don’t know what… [laughs]

More like someone who wants to make a difference, in a holistic way.

Probably. Yeah, holistic thinking. But when you look at holistic thinking, you can’t avoid that the environment is a very important part about regulating our lives. So in that way, I see the environment in a more logical angle, for its importance in our lives.

What would be the one big environmental issue that bothers you?

I guess, being Malaysian, it is deforestation. I mean, we don’t even understand much about forests and according to the precautionary principle, the fact that we don’t know much is not an excuse for deforestation. The precautionary principle should be sustainable forest management. Forests in Malaysia, even from traditional knowledge – I spent some time with the indigenous people in Tasik Chini for example, and while science probably doesn’t know much, they can tell you how important it is to their livelihood, spiritually, and also how it regulates all the other processes. Of course we know that it sequesters carbon, there is evidence that it also purifies water, and the water flows… so we are blessed in Malaysia with a lot of forests and bio-diversity. In Malaysia, I would say that that’s the most important thing, which connects everything, including carbon emissions, which is now the main concern of the world. Climate change. But I think the forests we have cross-cuts even more than that.

What have you done, and what can be done to address these issues?

My position here is a policy analyst. As a policy analyst I try to work with policymakers on this issue, on various projects that they are working on. But of course as an individual, there are many NGOs working on issues such as these. The problem that I find in Malaysia is that even the first level of awareness is not there. So, I could talk about my involvement in policies, and even with NGOs, but the main thing is mainstreaming the awareness throughout the society, which we are still not very good at. Because a culture shift in understanding the environment and how important it is for us is what will make the changes. Even political changes, even the private sector will have to answer to the demands of the mass population. We are still a developing country but we’re moving towards the developed status, or we hope to. And if you compare with developed nations, I think the mass movement is not there yet.

That’s why I like what you guys are doing [laughs] and I think that’s the most important thing now. And then there’s the next level of policy-making, science, people who have a real grasp on environmental issues. That’s the next challenge after awareness I think. It will go hand-in-hand, but we don’t have enough of capacity in Malaysia to scientifically… to find solutions. We don’t have enough capacity for that.

You mean in terms of money? Or human talent?

Human talent. We don’t have enough of human talent. I know that because I’m overworked [laughs]. I think we do have quite a bit of interest, but how do we change that interest to constructive movement towards making a change? But once again, perhaps that starts from an overall awareness, an overall cultural thinking on understanding how important the environment is. And then we perhaps would have more people interested in this area, and naturally more people working in this area.

For someone who wants to get their hands dirty, to go and do something, what would you say to them?

Probably coming from what I said just now. The difficult thing about the environment is… [pause] probably it would upset some other movements here, but it’s quite scientific. So what I would say is, study it. Pure passion is admirable, but what is missing as I say, is the level of capacity to articulate environmental issues. Articulate to other people, to the wider public, to the policymakers, to the whole world, what Malaysia is doing. We don’t have much of that capacity.

So what I would say is, if you’re interested in it, study it, because you will get a job in it. I think that’s another thing. People might be afraid that there is no jobs in the environmental field. I can’t guarantee it [laughs] but globally it seems that there is a trend for that. So I would encourage anyone to actually pursue their studies in this area. Environmental science etc. On top of that, of course there are many… if you talk about getting your hands dirty, it’s a form of education as well that there are already many NGOs and individuals doing many things on the environment.

In the age of the Internet, and also things like what MESYM is doing, it’s much easier to get involved in that. And I guess that’s another thing, that as you know, that some people are not aware of these activities. They are there, and you would learn a great deal just being involved. From what I know, there’s not enough of volunteers as well for these things. And that’s another form of capacity. So, there are things to do in Malaysia, for sure. A simple way is to get involved straightaway. If you’re more serious about it, get some actual expertise in the area, through studies or through working in the area.Alizan Mahadi is an analyst in the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, focusing on the nexus between energy, water and food security and a holistic view of sustainable development. In this interview, he tells us why he does not regard himself as an environmentalist, his views on deforestation and how to get involved in the environmental scene.

Tell us about yourself.

You mentioned something about me being an environmentalist. I don’t really consider myself as an environmentalist, actually. My field is sustainable development, and the field of environmentalism is quite a confusing one. There are many who think that “environmentalists” is kind of an oxymoron. Historically, those who push for environmentalism are not really saving the environment. Their issue is still anthropocentric. It’s still about people. So it’s not about the environment. That’s one thing. And then, if you consider the environment as something really valuable, then what the environmentalist did after that was… kind of a reductionist approach. Like saying that it’s based on CO2, it’s based on all these measures which doesn’t really capture what nature, or the environment, is. So I don’t really see myself as an environmentalist, for that.

Secondly, my field is sustainable development. In the traditional sense, it’s a combination of the three pillars of environment, social, and economy. Especially for a country like Malaysia, which is still developing, I think that there is still a need for economic and social development. With the environment balanced across the three. But I think the big thing is that a lot of people equate the environment with sustainable development. It’s the fact that traditionally, especially in Malaysia, the economic and social pillars have always been the basis of our development, throughout the Malaysia Plans, eradicating poverty has been our main aim. Which we have done successfully.

But the environmental pillar, around the world, and especially in Malaysia, is the weaker part, that’s why a lot of the topics surrounding sustainability is about the environment. But it’s more because of the fact that the environment has been left out of development. As you can see, now people are realizing that the environment is one of the more important, for even the economic and social development. With ecological economist Herman Daly’s triangle, the natural capital is most important, over human capital.

So, that’s my interest – more on the interconnection between the environment, social, economy, in our lives. So, you know, just a semantics thing maybe, but I really don’t see myself as an environmentalist, more uh, I don’t know what… [laughs]

More like someone who wants to make a difference, in a holistic way.

Probably. Yeah, holistic thinking. But when you look at holistic thinking, you can’t avoid that the environment is a very important part about regulating our lives. So in that way, I see the environment in a more logical angle, for its importance in our lives.

What would be the one big environmental issue that bothers you?

I guess, being Malaysian, it is deforestation. I mean, we don’t even understand much about forests and according to the precautionary principle, the fact that we don’t know much is not an excuse for deforestation. The precautionary principle should be sustainable forest management. Forests in Malaysia, even from traditional knowledge – I spent some time with the indigenous people in Tasik Chini for example, and while science probably doesn’t know much, they can tell you how important it is to their livelihood, spiritually, and also how it regulates all the other processes. Of course we know that it sequesters carbon, there is evidence that it also purifies water, and the water flows… so we are blessed in Malaysia with a lot of forests and bio-diversity. In Malaysia, I would say that that’s the most important thing, which connects everything, including carbon emissions, which is now the main concern of the world. Climate change. But I think the forests we have cross-cuts even more than that.

What have you done, and what can be done to address these issues?

My position here is a policy analyst. As a policy analyst I try to work with policymakers on this issue, on various projects that they are working on. But of course as an individual, there are many NGOs working on issues such as these. The problem that I find in Malaysia is that even the first level of awareness is not there. So, I could talk about my involvement in policies, and even with NGOs, but the main thing is mainstreaming the awareness throughout the society, which we are still not very good at. Because a culture shift in understanding the environment and how important it is for us is what will make the changes. Even political changes, even the private sector will have to answer to the demands of the mass population. We are still a developing country but we’re moving towards the developed status, or we hope to. And if you compare with developed nations, I think the mass movement is not there yet.

That’s why I like what you guys are doing [laughs] and I think that’s the most important thing now. And then there’s the next level of policy-making, science, people who have a real grasp on environmental issues. That’s the next challenge after awareness I think. It will go hand-in-hand, but we don’t have enough of capacity in Malaysia to scientifically… to find solutions. We don’t have enough capacity for that.

You mean in terms of money? Or human talent?

Human talent. We don’t have enough of human talent. I know that because I’m overworked [laughs]. I think we do have quite a bit of interest, but how do we change that interest to constructive movement towards making a change? But once again, perhaps that starts from an overall awareness, an overall cultural thinking on understanding how important the environment is. And then we perhaps would have more people interested in this area, and naturally more people working in this area.

For someone who wants to get their hands dirty, to go and do something, what would you say to them?

Probably coming from what I said just now. The difficult thing about the environment is… [pause] probably it would upset some other movements here, but it’s quite scientific. So what I would say is, study it. Pure passion is admirable, but what is missing as I say, is the level of capacity to articulate environmental issues. Articulate to other people, to the wider public, to the policymakers, to the whole world, what Malaysia is doing. We don’t have much of that capacity.

So what I would say is, if you’re interested in it, study it, because you will get a job in it. I think that’s another thing. People might be afraid that there is no jobs in the environmental field. I can’t guarantee it [laughs] but globally it seems that there is a trend for that. So I would encourage anyone to actually pursue their studies in this area. Environmental science etc. On top of that, of course there are many… if you talk about getting your hands dirty, it’s a form of education as well that there are already many NGOs and individuals doing many things on the environment.

In the age of the Internet, and also things like what MESYM is doing, it’s much easier to get involved in that. And I guess that’s another thing, that as you know, that some people are not aware of these activities. They are there, and you would learn a great deal just being involved. From what I know, there’s not enough of volunteers as well for these things. And that’s another form of capacity. So, there are things to do in Malaysia, for sure. A simple way is to get involved straightaway. If you’re more serious about it, get some actual expertise in the area, through studies or through working in the area.

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