GCSC Seminar: Exploring More Sustainable Futures through Southeast Asia Case Study

By Maria Archibald, Sustainability Office

As the COVID-19 vaccine offers communities respite and hope, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic are rising across the world. Dr. Pamela McElwee, associate professor of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, cautions that early indications show this is not happening. To “build back better”—in ways that are economically and environmentally sustainable—is complicated and challenging. But it is also vital.

On Tuesday, March 23 at 4 p.m. McElwee will join the GCSC and the U of U Asia Center for her talk, “Sustainable Development in Southeast Asia in a Post-COVID Era.” McElwee, an interdisciplinary environmental scientist with a background in anthropology and forestry, will discuss Southeast Asia as a case study through which to explore the challenges of sustainable development and the potential for alternative economic development models.

Southeast Asia, McElwee says, is “emblematic of the challenges that we face in doing sustainable development” because it encapsulates the problems and possibilities of such work more broadly.

McElwee explains that Southeast Asia has successfully reduced poverty over the last thirty years, but that this economic development has come at a high environmental price. “Southeast Asia is the region where they do a lot of natural resource exploitation for exports, and over the last 20-30 years, we’ve seen the increasingly large impacts of that,” McElwee says. “So, you’ve got these clashing issues where on the one hand you’ve had this very successful poverty alleviation, but on the other hand, it’s come at a high environmental cost.”

Southeast Asia has reached a development crossroads, McElwee says, because poverty alleviation has plateaued while environmental degradation continues to increase. In fact, Southeast Asia has some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, largely due to global consumption of products like timber, palm oil, and shrimp. “A lot of people are saying—‘what’s going on?’” McElwee explains. “We’re not getting continued wellbeing gains, but we’re all of a sudden suffering worse air pollution, we’re suffering from the impacts of climate change…and so we need to think about doing things a little bit differently.”

So far, these issues have been addressed by reforming the current resource-intensive development model to make it “more sustainable.” In other words, resource-heavy global trade continues as usual, but consumers are encouraged to purchase products like palm oil and shrimp from brands that reduce their ecological footprint. There is concern, however, that these small reforms do not meet the scale of the problem and that larger measures are necessary.

“The question is, do we continue to tinker around the edges, or does there need to be a transformative change?” McElwee asks.

Transformative change is challenging, McElwee says. “Once you’re on a certain pathway, it’s very hard to get off,” she explains. “You built your economies on this model, and what an alternative vision for that would be is really challenging.”

McElwee emphasizes the importance of participatory processes in visioning sustainable development futures. It is vital that community concerns are heard and that mechanisms for a just transition are built into the development model. Transitions toward environmentally sustainable futures must also be economically viable for the communities they affect. “Those are discussions that have to be held, and if they’re not held then people aren’t going to be interested in a future for sustainable development,” McElwee says. “They’ll reject it. And we want to avoid that.”

McElwee’s research in Southeast Asia offers something to everyone. “We’re all in an interconnected economy now, whether we like it or not,” she reminds us. “The aggregate contribution to climate change—whether it’s deforestation in Southeast Asia or it’s fossil fuel use here—all goes up to the same place. The days of thinking of individual countries as being able to affect environmental change by themselves are pretty much gone.”

Register ahead of time, then tune in on Zoom on Tuesday, March 23 at 4 p.m. to learn more from McElwee about the challenges and opportunities of sustainable development in Southeast Asia and beyond, and how participatory processes are vital to a sustainable future.