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Dr Neo Mei Lin: Saving the environment the right way

The NUS research fellow and co-founder of Celebrating Singapore Shores talks about the importance of biodiversity in her Next Gen guest column.

The Peak’s Next Gen personalities take over to share personal stories close to their hearts – get to know all nine of them here.

 

Turn off the lights. Avoid single-use plastics. Reduce the carbon footprint. These are actions widely propagated as ways to save the environment, but it also frustrates me that they’re missing an important element – biodiversity. My fondness and curiosity for the natural world was fostered by my parents, who unassumingly led me on the path to becoming an environmental advocate and marine biologist. We spent many of our weekends as a family exploring the nooks and crannies of the nature places in Singapore such as the vast lallang fields of Punggol and the fishing jetties off Lim Chu Kang. Today, these places have disappeared in the face of development.

I meet many passionate young people who want to do their part in saving the environment, but my feelings towards them are somewhat ambivalent at times. On one hand, I’m heartened and inspired by their desire to act now, but I feel troubled by how their notion of “saving the environment” tends to omit the well-being of biodiversity. Their good intentions are instead focused on the well-being of humans and their health.

But how many more species have to become extinct before we remember to include biodiversity in the equation for saving the environment? The first species declared as globally extinct in 2020 was the Chinese paddlefish, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish that once lived in China’s Yangtze River. Closer to home, the Sumatran rhinoceros is now extinct in Malaysia where the very last rhino died in November 2019. In Indonesia, there are no more than 80 left.

The truth is, we don’t feel these losses because people are more and more disconnected from nature and its biodiversity. If we lose that connection, what might it mean for our planet?

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In today’s context, nature may mean something different to many of us, including myself, who grew up in a city. For most, it may mean the park that one walks through daily on their commute to work. Even so, our children and adults are gradually disconnecting from nature because of the shrinking of nature spaces to make way for development and the increasing consumption of digital technology in their daily lives. When one spends more time in the digital world, one is spending less in the natural and real one. It is therefore harder for people to connect the dots to a sustainable future when the opportunity to experience and understand nature’s benefits are few and far between.

Nature is not just nice to have but a necessity to maintain our physical and mental well-being. A growing body of research has established the effects of nature’s benefits on health, relieving stress and promoting healing. We need to find ways to let nature balance our lives. We need to convince policymakers and corporations to consider the human need for nature. These benefits would become irrelevant if we continue to destroy nature around us. And this destruction is assured without human connection to nature.

Since becoming a mother, my work has taken on more meaning as I’m trying to leave a positive environmental legacy for my daughter. I wish for her to still have the opportunity to have meaningful, enjoyable encounters with nature. She cannot grow to love nature if she does not experience it. We need to create opportunities for both children and adults to reconnect with nature. If not us, who will be the environmental stewards for nature?

Conservation is no longer enough. If we want to protect our environment, we must cherish and preserve whatever natural habitats are left, and restore or create natural habitats in urban spaces to protect the biodiversity that all living creatures, including humans, need. I believe that it is not yet too late to act. We may be the cause of many environmental problems we see today, but as a race, we have the capacity to develop solutions to make a difference and save the environment the right way.

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